by Jane Marcellus
Winner, Editors’ Prize for Prose, selected by Dinty W. Moore
He is standing there in a spattered white lab coat, holding up a bunch of car- rots. I am standing here in the doorway, hoping I’ve come to the right place.
“You must be Jane,” he says. “Guess who these are for?”
From a few feet away, I notice his eyes. They are brown—so brown that I cannot see his pupils. I keep looking at his eyes, trying to nd them, trying to make certain that it is me, here, that he is looking at. His gaze makes me aware that I am actually a person standing here, in this spot—a person with a name, which is Jane, which he knows. I am not used to feeling seen. I am used to feeling invisible. It is unnerving—blinding even—to be seen by a person whose pupils I cannot see, a person who knows my name.
I am young, although I do not know it. Twenty-one. I confuse feeling seen, and this odd feeling of being blinded, for love.
“Yes,” I say. “I’m Jane.”
The job is feeding lab rabbits and washing beakers in the college biology labs. It is my third job this summer, on account of an argument with my mother. For the past four summers, I have worked at one of the jobs she got me. She is a legal secretary for the state of Oklahoma, and she likes to get me typing jobs. Since the summer I was seventeen, I have gone along with this. I can live at home and make more money there than waitressing or busing tables. I save the money to pay for the college, which is in Connecticut and expensive, even with the scholarship. I am not sure I deserve the college, so typing has seemed like a kind of penance. But it is beginning to feel dangerous. I will graduate in another year. I sense relief rising in my mother like a prayer. Finally, I will come home for good and she can get me on with the state. I will be a secretary, not for the summer but for life.
I resign from this year’s state job without showing up for work. It began inauspiciously anyway. For the first two summers, I typed beer licenses and for the second two worked the evening shift in the state children’s hospital answering telephones in the nurses’ office and occasionally feeding babies. But this year I am sent from office to office until I find myself sitting across from a woman with blonde hair immobilized by hairspray, her wrist full of bracelets and a smudge of blue shadow above her false eyelashes. “I’ve got a little girl here who needs a typing job,” she tells someone on the telephone. I feel my mind go blank at the words, “little girl.” I try to remember the feminist theory I learned in a women’s lit class, but it seems too distant—a receding lighthouse on a far shore. I take the job but then can’t do it. I call up the blue-eye-shadow woman and tell her. My mother says I am ruining my chances. “Things like this end up in your personnel life,” she says. I tell her I don’t care, since I’m not moving back here after graduation. She says, “Oh, phooey” and types up a letter apologizing and, when I refuse, signs my name to it. I feel enraged that she has made her words mine. Besides that, I notice, she’s a bad forger and her letter has a comma splice.
I spend all my money on a plane ticket to Boston.
In Boston, I get a typing job through one of the temp agencies on a side street off Tremont. They have signs in the window in code: “Typ 45 no shthnd” or “Gal Fri.” It is no better than the job at home—in fact, it pays less—but I don’t know what else I can do. At least I am in Boston. I live with my friend Ann, who has her parents’ house for the summer while they vacation in Vermont. The house is in Milton, a mile’s walk from one end of the Red Line. Every morning I take the T to the Park Street stop and walk across Boston Common. The job is at an insurance company in Back Bay. All day I type letters. There are two kinds. Some promise how much the company will pay in the event of various predicaments. Others explain why the company can’t pay, on account of this or that technicality. No one seems to notice the contradiction but me. The permanent typists talk about men they meet clubbing. They invite me to lunch, but I make excuses until they quit asking. Lunch is only half an hour but I have discovered that if I hurry, I can make it downstairs to the deli and then to a spot by the swan boats in the Public Garden in ten minutes. For fifteen minutes, I sit there. I eat my sandwich, read a few pages of whatever book I have brought, then hurry back in the last five minutes. Doing that, I can get through the day.
At the end of July, I go back to Connecticut. I hate the insurance job, and Ann’s parents are coming home. I call the campus work-study office to ask if they have a fall job I can start early. There’s one in the biology labs, the woman on the phone tells me. It isn’t usually a job for English majors, but I can have it now. She tells me the room number and when to show up.
There are nine rabbits, all white. I am unaware of the politics of animal experimentation, so I don’t really think about it. I just know that I am standing here in a small room with the guy with brown eyes—a biology student about my age, it turns out—and he is showing me how to feed the rabbits. He has named them. Tristan is one. Tristan has taut muscles and a serious expression. He comes up to the edge of the cage when we walk in, an impatient look on his face. The one on the top left is fatter, softer looking, shy. I don’t remember her name, or the names of the others. The rabbits’ job is to give blood, a little from their ears every few days.
I notice their eyes, which are pink and have a blank, stunned look. Their noses twitch constantly. We give each one a carrot. He says I should bring them carrots, too, when I come back to feed them.
College hasn’t exactly turned out like I planned, although I would never tell my mother that. Back in high school, I wrote off for catalogs from private New England colleges and kept the stash under my bed, over near the wall where she wouldn’t notice. Poring over them at night, I imagined I would become like the girls in the catalog photos—girls who walked confidently among old stone buildings, hugging books as they made their way along cleared paths through bright snow. In the East I would become a writer, a female F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the rest of my life would take care of itself.
It’s hard to say where, or even whether, boys t into this vision. I never pictured them in my post–Oklahoma life, which would be just mine, my own. I hated dating. All that awkward expectation seemed designed to foreclose on my future. In 10th grade, when other girls talked about their “wedding colors,” I declared I would never marry. And when the Josten’s class ring salesman told us at an assembly that the rings were traditionally worn on the left hand, “except you girls, who want to save your left hand for that other, more important ring,” I tried not to groan as bashful laughter rippled through the auditorium. At the front of the line to get our fingers sized, I pressed my right hand to my side and held out my left.
And yet I thought about boys all the time. One was always there with me on the dreamscape of my imagination, a fantasy companion with few complications. Junior year I developed a crush on the lanky 5th-hour English teacher who introduced us to Fitzgerald, so he and the airy audacity of the title character in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” became all one piece in my mind. At parties I made out with a red-haired pianist who would lean his whole body into his favorite Chopin polonaise, evoking Dexter Green’s ecstasy in “Winter Dreams.” Not long after graduation, on a clear Saturday night when the summer solstice happened to coincide with the full moon, I decided it was time to give up my virginity. Other girls talked about “saving yourself” and whether you had to marry the boy if you went “all the way,” but I thought those were insipid worries. In truth, we didn’t get far. The boy’s parents were away so we had his house to ourselves, but we hardly knew what we were doing, and besides his cat, Annabelle, kept jumping on the bed. I don’t remember what I said when my mother asked where I’d been. Probably, “Nowhere.” Two months later, I left for Connecticut.
Sometimes he walks down the corridor to the room where I wash test tubes and beakers. I look around and he will be standing there, leaning up against the door frame. “How are you doing?” he says. I still can’t see his pupils. It still unnerves me. I say fine.
The beakers and test tubes come in various sizes—big beakers the size of a pitcher, test tubes no bigger than your finger, most of them in between. I put them in giant dishwashers, which aren’t like regular dishwashers at home. They are hotter, steamier, and the cycle takes longer. It’s women’s work, I know, but at least it’s not typing. I wear big gloves when I work. They are like rubber gloves, only they have something inside—lead, I guess—that is supposed to protect me from radioactivity. They are gray, thick, ugly, and they make me feel like a scullery maid in this building full of scientists. In this building with him.
One day he sees me touch a clean test tube without wearing the gloves. I g- ured it had been through the dishwasher, and the gloves are so ungainly.
“Always wear these gloves,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.” I confuse this, also, with love.
Home hasn’t slipped away like I thought it would, either. My friends from high school still write about who is going out with whom or who has gotten married.
Most of them are at one of the state universities, where they brag about skip- ping class or not doing assigned reading, like that’s some badge of honor. You’d be shunned at my college if you said that. Walking across campus on Sunday nights you hear the clatter of typewriters through open dorm windows— everyone busy writing a paper due Monday. I love that sound. I’ve moved on from Fitzgerald to D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Sylvia Plath. I sequester myself in library carrels, working hard to interpret their work, then taking my handwritten drafts back to my dorm room to type, amazed at how typing turns to revising—re-seeing from a deeper place. I like the snow, too, but I haven’t slipped into the picture the way I imagined I would. The place is full of kids who graduated from Choate or Phillips Academy or some- thing called a “country day school.” Their parents are writers or politicians or scientists you’ve heard of, or at least doctors or lawyers or professors. I’m a secretary’s daughter with a father who’s out of the picture. Even my scholarship designates me as an outsider—the “Regional” for people from far away. As much as it’s been a relief to get away from all the assumptions about getting an “MRS degree” and quitting school, the truth is I miss home. I miss not having to prove I’m smart all the time, plus there’s a lot here that’s hard to get used to, like the earnest expressions and girls in no makeup. Seeing my re ection in the mirror every morning, I can’t help daubing on a little eye shadow and mascara. Despite my solstice experience, I haven’t gotten used to how blatant people are about sex. Back on our freshman hall, someone laminated a “Man in Shower” sign to hang on a hook outside the hall bathroom if you brought a guy home, a practice everyone played it too cool to question. One girl had two contraband kittens named Yin and Yang that she tossed into the corridor whenever she had sex, so they were always there, mewing at her door.
My mother calls on weekends. “You can always come home,” she reminds me. I say I know, but I know I can’t.
One afternoon he invites me for dinner. It’s early fall. He is living with a bunch of other people in one of the big old clapboards rented out to students.
We have tofu. I have never heard of it. We don’t have tofu in Oklahoma. Standing there next to him at the kitchen counter, looking at the tofu floating in its plastic tray, I think it looks like a bar of Ivory soap—“99 44/100% Pure,” as the ads say, whatever that means. But he tells me tofu is the food of the future. It can become anything.
We must have cooked the tofu, but I don’t remember that part. I remember taking our plates upstairs to his room. We sit side by side on his bed eating tofu and when we are done he sets our plates on his desk. He is clean, I notice, though cluttered.
He sits back down on the bed beside me. He puts an arm around me, touches his forehead to mine. His face goes out of focus. His brown eyes are right there. I close mine, too overwhelmed to look.
And then he is gone. One gray Sunday morning after classes end in December, I walk across campus to feed the rabbits. I go every day, letting myself in with a key. On the counter I nd a piece of paper folded in half with “Jane” on the outside—a note from him. For complicated reasons, he has left the university. He is going to Boston. He tells me goodbye.
I look at the note for a long time. His handwriting, which I have not seen before, is large, with long straight lines that slant to the right.
Something about the note suggests that leaving me is no big deal. I try to follow his lead, to play it cool, to feel nothing: “Bye. See you around. Maybe.”
I am aware of something imploding inside me.
Not long after this, I learn the rabbits are to be terminated. The lab is through with them. I have thought, somehow, that the rabbits would go on living their lives in the room upstairs. I think about Tristan, an ugly rabbit really, always serious, being injected with pentobarbital to end his life. I think of the shy soft one on the top left. I sit on the oor in my dorm room looking up “Farms” in the local phone book. I call around. “Would you like some rabbits? Free? I’ll bring them to you.” I have no idea how I’m going to do that, since I don’t have a car. Finally, someone says yes. I convince the woman who manages the lab to help me drive them out to the country. They twitch their noses in the usual way as I tell each one goodbye. Their pink eyes stare blankly.
Now he is really gone.
Rabbits’ eyes are different from ours. They’re not blind, though the pink-eyed albinos look it sometimes, with their blank, unfocused expressions. But in some ways, they see better than we do. They can scan the world around them at 360 degrees and see distances well, too. Put something right in front of them, though, and they won’t see that at all.
I am the opposite—extremely nearsighted. For me it’s hard to see the big picture. 42 Jane Marcellus
“Dear _____,” I begin the letter to his address in Boston. A few months have passed. Asking around, I have found out where he lives.
I have decided to move to Boston after graduation. Actually, I decided this the summer I lived with Ann, so it has nothing to do with him, exactly. I love Boston. It’s old. People read there. I’m not sure what I’m going to do—my Fitzgerald plans being harder than I expected—but if I go back to Oklahoma, I will never get away again.
“I am coming to Boston to look for a job. Could I sleep on your couch?” I write.
He really is the only person I know there, since Ann is back at college. And I really can’t afford a hotel.
“Sure,” he writes back.
The couch is small. That’s the first thing I notice. It’s the kind of couch you pick up used in your early twenties. I don’t say anything about its size, although I wonder where I’m going to sleep.
Later, after we sit on the short couch and watch TV and talk about what kind of job I might look for (I have no idea), he asks, “Which side of the bed do you want?”
The bed is a king made of two twin mattresses propped up on milk crates. He found the crates, and someone who was moving gave him the mattresses. It takes up most of the bedroom.
I say the left, for no particular reason.
I lie curled against his shoulder. I try not to let him know I like the way his body feels inside his T-shirt. I try to be casual. I don’t want to presume anything. It’s just that the couch is short, and the bed is big, and I don’t have a job, and I can’t go home on account of my mother, so here I am, thinking vaguely about that first day in the lab, about the tofu, about how I don’t even have a résumé, about how I don’t want to do anything that involves sitting at a typewriter pecking out other people’s words. I try to come up with an alternate vision, something that might materialize miraculously by morning. But nothing comes to me, and anyway, here he is.
So here’s the thing about seeing and invisibility: almost everyone in my life looks at me like they already know who I am. My mother, other relatives, my own friends back home, people like the older man who pumps gas at the Texaco around the corner from my mother’s house, all look at me with a blind gaze that constructs me as someone I don’t want to be—somebody’s cute girlfriend, a wife and mother, a “little girl who needs a typing job.” Even some professors treat me like an outsider because of my home state. They don’t say “flyover” but that’s what they mean. In either place, it’s a way of looking that is not-seeing, an absence of sight that makes me blind to myself. That first day in the lab, when I noticed him gazing at me with eyes at once so dark brown they seemed opaque, and yet open and curious, I was stunned to feel myself visible. I called it love, lacking other vocabulary.
As Adrienne Rich pointed out, common language is a dream.
He calls sometimes. I am living in an apartment in Somerville with two room- mates I met through an ad. They are big, loud women, engineering students. I don’t like them, but the place is a furnished sublet and rent is cheap. I have found a job, if you can call it that, as a substitute teacher. At rst I gured I could sub while looking for something else, but the school system calls every morning at 5 A.M., so after a while I just do that. The rst time they call they want me to teach senior-level math, a class I never took myself. I say yes and assign random pages in the textbook and walk around nodding like I know what I’m doing, a skill I discover I’m good at. Substitute teaching pays $25 a day. After taxes, it covers rent and food. I don’t have a car, and I have enough clothes.
I have a rule: after graduation, no secretarial work. So the main advantage of subbing is that it’s not that.
Anyway, he calls sometimes. In the evening, unexpectedly. The phone on the kitchen wall will ring and he’ll say, “Wanna come over?”
He lives an hour away on the T—a long walk up a side street to a main road where the buses run, a wait at the stop, twenty minutes or so to the Red Line at Harvard Square, then the train to his stop at Charles Street. I tell my roommates I’m going out, not to worry, not that they would.
I don’t take a change of clothes because I don’t want him to think I’m planning to stay. Hey, we’re just friends, right? I do take my diaphragm, tucked in the bottom of my purse. Although I never let myself think anything will happen, I figure it’s good to take precautions.
Later, when we are lying on his two mattresses up on milk crates and realize that the T has stopped running so I am not going to walk back up to the Charles stop and take it back to Harvard Square then wait for the bus in the cold and ride back to where it would let me off at the end of the dark street half a mile from the apartment with the roommates I dislike, I have to figure out what to do with my contact lenses. I can’t wear them all night, and I haven’t brought a contact lens case, because then he might think I was planning to stay. He suggests champagne glasses. We ll them with water and I oat my contact lenses there. I put them on the kitchen table, the glass with the right lens on the right and the left lens on the left. Without them my world is soft, diffuse. I have no eyeglasses or spare contacts. I take it on faith that they won’t tip over, that I’ll be able to see in the morning, at least as well as I ever do.
I don’t think about him all the time. It feels important to say that. In between his calls, when I am not subbing, I walk around Harvard Square looking in bookstores. I read a lot and write in notebooks. I read books about women who seem like me—Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark and Marge Piercy’s Small Changes—women who resist living pre- dictable lives. “Just like Oklahoma City,” I write in the margin of Testament of Youth, pressing my words hard in tiny loops, as if a margin note will save me. Although it’s Brittain’s memoir about World War I, I am most interested in the part where she rails against the expectations of her Victorian parents. A girl should stay home, live an interior life, get married, they tell her. Vera rebels, going off to be a nurse in the war. All I want to do is live in Boston. To write. To be myself. “To be with him,” I start to add, then erase it, put it back, erase it again, nally settle on quotation marks. It’s true, of course, but the way I want to be with him doesn’t t any story I’ve grown up knowing how to tell about myself, about men, about relationships.
People back home want to know when I’m getting married. It’s mostly aunts and my mother’s friends who ask. They don’t mean to him, since they don’t know about him. They mean to somebody, anybody—surely, I have somebody. Why else did I go to college? When I’m there I shrug off their questions, change the subject. Marriage still seems like the end of things—“a dress wearing a girl,” as Marge Piercy put it. Back home, besides all the girls who talk endlessly about getting married, there are the women who wish they hadn’t. I seem to know a lot of them—neighbor women, my mother’s work friends, an aunt. Over coffee they tell my mother what they might have done if they hadn’t given it up for romance and I think, “What’s the point, then?” My own mother had a late, bad marriage. I once heard her tell a friend she hoped I would start a family sooner than she did, and I know I’m supposed to want that, but I don’t.
Sometimes it seems that my life is like that tofu—raw, new, full of possibility, yet somehow odd and foreign. I’m trying to avoid being stirred into the recipe of a prescribed life, yet unsure what else is possible. Meanwhile I oat, blank as soap.
And yet the stories we want no part of have a way of shaping our view of what’s possible, so what we run from can end up defining us.
After a while I begin to wonder, “What is this thing we have?” It feels like he is ashamed of me. We don’t go out. I don’t know his friends. He doesn’t know mine. I think there is something wrong with this picture, but I don’t have the words to say it.
I decide I need therapy. Everyone is part of a couple, or wants to be. I think there must be something wrong with me.
I find a feminist therapist near Harvard Square who works on a sliding scale and I try to explain my couple worries. I don’t mention him. I’m not trying to hide him. I just don’t have a vocabulary to explain our relationship.
“Do you need a man?” the therapist asks.
I was a straight-A student. I know a leading question when I hear one, and I like to give the right answer.
“No,” I say.
The lowest price for an hour on her sliding scale costs me a whole day’s pay subbing.
And then one month my period is late. Not very late, actually. But late. Late enough for me to notice. I make an appointment at a clinic that doesn’t ask questions. It’s on a side street in Back Bay, not far from the building where I had the insurance job. I sit in a room with worried women and later in an exam room alone. It’s cold in the paper gown. On the wall are bright diagrams that show the uterus and fallopian tubes and ovaries. I look at the diagrams and think about these things, folded down there in the soft quiet dark inside me.
I know I am not pregnant. After a while, a woman comes in and tells me I am not pregnant. I act relieved, but I already knew that.
That’s not why I have come. I have come to nd out how it would feel to be that girl I don’t want to be.
In the mornings, he gets up before me. I wake to the sound of dishes clattering. He works in a hospital lab and has to be at work early. He comes back into the bedroom, pulls clothes out of the big shipping trunk that doubles as a closet— jeans, socks, a clean shirt. His shirts always look like they’ve been wadded up. He doesn’t have an iron. Or hangers.
He leans over to kiss me goodbye. He smells good, like Breck shampoo. His hair is still damp at the edges.
I wish he could come back to bed, but I don’t say that.
“There’s tea,” he says. He knows I like tea. “Be sure the door is locked when you leave.”
I hold onto him a little, just trying to be in this moment—him here, the way his body is rm and soft at the same time, the good way he smells and the damp- ness, the brownness of his hair and eyes. Close up the pupils are right there, I’ve discovered. You just have to look for them. I haven’t told him that. Having found them, I’ve begun to wonder how he sees me, though maybe it doesn’t matter. That we have little in common, that he might be just using me—those kinds of phrases don’t cross my mind. Anyway, maybe he is what I need—a man who is in my life, but not de ning it. We have yet to coin a term for that, even now, from a woman’s perspective. What I need is to see myself, of course. That I actually do love him, if only because he was kind to those rabbits, somehow misses the point.
He starts to stand up and I say, like it’s no big deal, “Bye.”
Then, “Wait. Kiss me again.”
I lie there and listen to the door latch, to his quick steps on the stairs, to him opening and closing the door to the street. I listen to his footsteps on the brick sidewalk until they fade away.
In a few months I will leave Boston, a place teeming with unemployed English majors. I will go to journalism school. It’s not what I want, but at least it’s writing and not secretarial work. I pick a school in the Midwest—a geographical compromise I hope will win the approval of my mother and people back home, which it doesn’t. When I get there I will miss him, miss Boston, miss the ambiguity I will have traded for someone else’s professional view of me. Years later, I will still long for the ambiguity, the possibility of this part of my life.
But now I press my face in his pillow, listening to the sounds below on the street: other people’s footsteps, talk that seems far off then grows close then disappears in the other direction. Eventually, I get up.
In the kitchen, I make tea. I have toast. I look to see if he has eggs and wonder if he would mind if I ate one. I debate about whether I should eat the orange laying there. It has begun to shrink, the way too-ripe oranges do, and I know it needs eating but it is the last one, so I leave it. I move quietly, deft as a thief, or a ghost, leaving no trace of myself. I sit on the couch for a while, looking around at his things. Then, because there is nothing else to do, I leave. In the corridor, I take a long breath and hold it just before I close the door. I know that when the latch clicks, I will be cut off from him, out in the wide-open city that I love but have no place in—just an apartment with vulgar roommates and the sporadic income of substitute teaching. Today I don’t even have that, since I wasn’t home for the 5 A.M. call. I don’t know when I will hear from him again—a couple of weeks, maybe three. Then he will call. “Wanna come over?” and I will.
Jane Marcellus’s essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Gettysburg Review, and Sycamore Review. Her essay “My Father’s Tooth” was a Best American Essays 2018 Notable, and she received the Betty Gabehart Award for nonfiction from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in 2018. A former journalist, she is the author of Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Employed Women (2011) and a co-author of Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (2014). Twitter: @janemarcellus. Online at janemarcellus.com.