My memory of Stella, at nineteen, is neither as crisp nor as detailed as it should be. It's only with a tremendous effort of will that I can bring her into focus at all. She is wearing a complicated black outfit that looks like rags pinned together with safety pins, and black stockings, with deliberate runs laddering her legs. Her skin is translucent, the color of skim milk, and her matted, dyed blond hair looks about as plausibly human as the hair of a much loved doll. Under her eyes are extravagant circles, plum colored and deep. She always looks haggard. No one that age looked haggard the way she looked haggard. And yet, as one came to know her, that was part of her romance.
Stella was from the South. I remember her being from a trailer park, but it may have been a small, sleepy town. She had some sort of unspeakable tragedy in her background, which added to the quality of southern gothic she cultivated. In my picture of her, she is curled up on a mahogany windowsill, with a Faulkner novel, but in reality, she was one of those brilliant college students whose minds are clamoring too loudly with their own noise to read much.
On good days, Stella looked as if she were late to the most important meeting of her life; on bad days, she looked if she were being hunted down by organized and insidious forces. She was also one of the most powerful people in our Harvard class. She was monumentally, conspicuously damaged in a way that was, to us then, ineffably chic. She had an entourage of followers and hangers-on, mostly men of ambiguous sexual preference whose mothers had given them exotic, weighty names like Byron and Ulysses. She had an authentically doomed streak that was to the rest of us, future bankers, editors, lawyers, future parents of one point five children, and mortgage holders, uniquely appealing. And the whole time I knew her she was writing something--a detective story? a play? a thriller?--something with a murder in it, I think, but whatever it was, it added to the impression that she was engaged in more important endeavors than the rest of us. She talked in the cartoon bubbles of comic book characters: "Oh ho." Or "Jumping Juniper." Or "Iced cold beverage," or "Eek." This was part of an elaborate, stylized defense, against the softness associated with sincerity.
And yet, the perfection of her cool was pleasantly undermined by an ambience of frazzled vulnerability. She was overweight, and had a flinching relationship with her own body. If you caught a glimpse of her coming down Plympton Street at dusk, you might mistake her self-deprecating shuffle for that of a homeless person. In retrospect, I can see that she was kind of wonderful looking, with her fabulous, disheveled gestalt, but at the time being overweight was an enormous, almost insurmountable, taboo. She had a great, pure throaty laugh, which went along with a child's pleasure in the smallest things. I can see her clapping her hands in delight over a chocolate sundae or a gardenia-scented candle.
She was one of the few girls at school that I could talk to. We would sit on her bed and chatter for hours. She would smoke insane amounts of cigarettes. I would drink insane amounts of coffee. In the background a scratchy Lou Reed song called "Waltzing Mathilda" might be playing; a song which for some reason we couldn't get enough of. It was about a party interrupted by the inconvenient discovery of a female corpse.
Over the years the sting of what happened between us has died down to an anecdote repeated at cocktail parties, where I had found it could be interesting sometimes to reveal something odious about yourself. "Will you listen to how you sound?" I can hear Stella saying. "It's still all about what a colorful character you are, isn't it?" In my mind her voice is perpetually and sharply sarcastic, which it wasn't always. There was plenty to Stella besides her considerable satiric gifts. But that is, after all of these years, what remains.
Stella's one conventionality was that she was in love. The boy in question was very tall and very green-eyed. He wore ripped jeans and fake gas station attendant's shirts, and was a Buddhist. He had a funny, fluid way of moving his long arms and legs that was attractively effeminate and moderately vain. And he had elegant, sharply arched eyebrows that gave him the aspect of one of the wickeder Greek gods. I won't bother to say what his name was because he could have been anyone, and his specific personality, which was fairly annoying in a number of specific ways, would only be a sideshow and a distraction. I knew the night I met him and Stella that they both were and weren't together; both facts were equally apparent after being around either of them for five minutes. They orbited each other, but anxiously. They spoke the same weird patois, a mixture of baby talk and archness. ("Who was that female person you were talking to?" "I don't know to whom you are referring, doll.") They seemed, if anything, like a brother and sister engaged in some kind of incestuous love under the magnolia trees of an old plantation.
The secret was that Stella and the boy sometimes slept together. In retrospect, I can't think why it was such a secret, unless it was the boy's vanity that demanded they remain officially unattached. Their spotty, intermittent affair depended on him not seeing a more conventionally pretty girl, and was extremely damaging for Stella, who remained in a state of dramatically heightened jealousy at all times. There was a whiff of scandal to the whole thing, which came, in a world where surfaces were everything, from their being so mismatched in looks.
In other words, it was hardly an ambiguous situation. There was, Stella would later point out, no shortage of boys: there were boys with prettier eyes or a more refined knowledge of Proust; boys with more original neuroses, and less saccharine forms of spirituality. But the fact is that attractions are contagious. I spent hours sitting at "Tommy's Lunch," drinking lime slushies and listening to Stella take apart the peculiarities of his character; hours listening to her fits of jealousy over the irresistible odalisques sprawled across his dorm bed. This is what happens when an overly intelligent woman brings all of her talents to bear on an infatuation: Without either of us realizing what was happening, she somehow persuaded me of his attractiveness.
My flirtation with the boy, if you could even call it that, was beyond furtive. The three of us were often together, and he and I behaved toward each other with an irreproachable mixture of mannerliness and hostility. He came to visit me alone once when I was sick and brought me magazines and orange juice. Our conversation was innocent bordering on banal. I think we talked about the declining quality of the cereal selection at breakfast. Neither one of us told Stella about the visit.
And yet somehow we both knew. It was as abstract and agreed upon as an arranged marriage. I felt it when I stepped into the cool morning air, and gulped down a milky cup of coffee before class. I felt it when I walked next to the slate-colored river, watching the shallow crew boats skim the surface. It was with me, in other words, all the time: a low-grade excitement about this boy I barely knew. From this distance in time, this may be the most foreign and inscrutable part of the story: the attractions that could at any moment flare up and end your life as you knew it.
At this point I may as well offer a slight, very slight, argument in my defense: people didn't belong as absolutely to other people then. There was a kind of fluidity to our world. The barriers that in adult life seem so solid and fixed, literal walls defining your apartment, your bedroom, did not exist at that age. You listened, for instance, to your roommate having sex; you slept easily and deeply on someone else's couch; you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with everyone you knew. And somehow nothing was quite real unless it was shared, talked about, rehashed with friends, fretted about and analyzed, every single thing that happened, every minute gradation of emotion, more a story in the process of being told than events in and of themselves.
Over the summer the boy came to visit me in New York. I remember him standing in the doorway to my room, grinning, with an army green duffel. Had we pretended it was a platonic visit? It seems far-fetched that he would have come all the way from New Hampshire to New York to see a casual acquaintance, but I have a feeling that was what we told ourselves. We climbed up to the roof of my parents' building and watched the boats go by on the Hudson, the sun silhouetting the squat water towers a dark silvery green.
I am aware, even now, of some small part of me that would like to say that it was worth it, some adolescent, swaggering side that would like to claim that the sexual moment itself seared the imagination, and was worth, in its tawdry, obliterating way, the whole friendship. It was not.
Of the act itself, I remember almost nothing at all. It seems that when one is doing something truly illicit, not just moderately illicit but plainly wrong, the sex itself is forgettable. The great fact of the immorality overshadows anything two mere bodies can achieve. All I remember is that he was gentle, in the way that sensitive boys were supposed to be gentle. He brought me a warm washcloth afterward, which sickened me slightly, and embarrassed me.
Stella, red pencil tucked behind her ear, would notice that I haven't described the actual seduction. That I've looked politely away from the events, because they are incriminating and, more important, banal. I wouldn't want to debase my great betrayal, my important, self-flagellating narrative with anything so mundane as what actually happened. That's how she would see it, anyway. Two people taking off their clothes, however gloriously wrong, are, in the end, just two people taking off their clothes.
But really, the problem is that my mind has thrown up an elegant Japanese folding screen, with a vista of birds and mountains and delicate, curling trees, to modestly block out the goings-on. And it does seem after all of these years, that a blow-by-blow would be anticlimactic. I can say, in a larger sense, what happened, which is this: I didn't care about him, nor did I delude myself into thinking that I did. I had enough sense to know that what I was experiencing so forcefully was a fundamentally trivial physical impulse. And that's what makes the whole situation so bewildering and impenetrable. Why would one night with a boy I didn't even particularly like seem worth ruining a serious and irreplaceable friendship?
I suppose, in accordance with the general and damaging abstraction of those years, I was fulfilling some misplaced idea of myself. I was finally someone who took things lightly. I thought a lot about "lightness" then. Even though I wasn't someone who took things lightly at all, I liked, that year, to think of myself as someone who did--all of which raises another question in my mind. Was at least part of the whole miserable escapade the fault of that wretched Milan Kundera book everyone was reading, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
? That silly, adolescent ode to emotional carelessness, that ubiquitous paperback expounding an obscure eastern European profundity in moral lapses? The more I think about it the more I think it's fair to apportion a tiny bit of the blame to Mr. Kundera. (Here Stella would raise her eyebrows. "A book forced you to do it? How literary
of you, how well read
you must be. . . .")
I suppose, also, in some corner of my fevered and cowardly brain I must have thought we would get away with it. I must have thought we would sleep together once and get it out of our systems. It turned out, however, that the boy believed in "honesty," an approach I would not have chosen on my own. He called Stella at the soonest possible second and told her. It was not hard to imagine the frantic look in Stella's eyes when he told her. Stella looked frantic when she had to pour cornflakes in a bowl. I hated him for telling her. I couldn't bear the idea of her knowing. Strangely enough, I felt protective of her, as if I wanted to protect her from the threat of myself.
I don't think I grasped right away the magnitude of what I had done. It felt--thanks to Professor Kerrick's Representations of Anomie in Twentieth-Century Art--like waking up in the middle of a Rene Magritte painting and finding tiny men with bowler hats suddenly falling from the sky. It didn't make sense, even to me, and I was startled, in a way, to find that it was real. To have the boy in my house the next morning, wanting coffee, and to have his soft blue-and-green flannel shirt spread out on my floor, was for some reason extremely startling. Cause and effect were sufficiently severed in my mind that I had not apprehended the enormity of the betrayal. In the light of day, it seemed a little unfair that I couldn't take it back.
I don't remember if the boy called Stella from my house, or if he waited a few hours and called her from a phone booth in the train station. I do remember him reveling in his abject abasement. I couldn't believe how much he reveled. He was, among other things, a religious nut. But back to Stella. It's funny how even now my mind wanders back to him. This man I did not even delude myself into thinking that I cared about. This man I did not even like
Stella, needless to say, was furious, mostly at me. I've noticed, in these cases, one is always furious at the person of the same sex, and one always finds the person of the other sex contemptible yet oddly blameless. To further complicate things, Stella and I were supposed to be roommates in the fall. This made everything infinitely worse: undoing our roommate arrangements proved to be more arduous than one would think. We had to disentangle ourselves officially in the eyes of the bureaucracy, and on paper: it was like getting a divorce.
Before I go any further maybe I should say something about self-destructiveness in those years. That warm July night, there was the pleasure of destruction, of Zippo lighters torching straw huts, of razing something truly good and valuable to the ground; there was the sense, however subliminal, of disemboweling a friendship. I remember filleting fish that I caught with my father on the docks, and seeing liver, kidney, roe splayed open on the slick wooden docks, for all to see. There was something thrilling and disgusting about it. Tearing open my friendship with Stella had the same effect. I felt sickened. I felt the freeing thrill of ruining everything.
Copyright © 2005 by Jenny Offill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.