She is understandably misinterpreted, an eccentric who likes her cocktails. This means she’s always at Maggie’s, the little bar we all go to after the readings.
Maggie’s is small enough you can mill about the place the way you would in someone’s house. There are always those, too—house parties. Jonas, the summer program’s director, wants his teaching staff well-cared for, especially since we all are garrisoned in the college dorms—‘suites’ the college calls them: two bedrooms, a bath and a common room the size of a postage stamp. But they’re air-conditioned, which is a blessing.
To compensate for the spartan housing, Jonas and his wife, Anna, hold dinners to which all the visiting faculty writers are invited. Another member of the English department, a medievalist named Heloise, also hosts a dinner from time to time. So most nights we all eat together like some kind of quirky family. After dinner, on weeknights, one of us gives a reading.
It won’t surprise you that Emily is a picky eater. She’ll nibble on a single shrimp or leave the dinner table, her plate untouched. Little wonder, then, that she’s rail-thin. And the severe way she wears her hair makes her look drawn and plain.
But it is not true that she always wears white. She is, in fact, a provocative dresser considering that she is no longer an ingénue. Somehow, she pulls it off. Maybe it’s her air of innocence—estranged from beauty none can be/for beauty is infinity. She’s always saying that kind of thing.
A further stereotype-busting fact is that each summer Emily has a fling with someone. I’ve been her room-mate for nine years, so trust me, I know. However pale her brow, her blood runs red. And if you read her poetry closely, that should come as no surprise.
Twice her liaisons have been with other poets on the summer faculty. But last year it was with one of the students in the program. Complicating things was the dicey fact that the student was married to a grants-writer in the college’s development department.
Since funding the summer program depends on various and changing factors, Jonas feared the worst. He talked to Emily. He tried to be stern with her, which wasn’t easy for him. He said that this was a small community, that everyone knew what everyone else was doing.
She just countered quietly, How much the present moment means/To those who’ve nothing more--.
Emily reported back to me that Jonas—fatigued or stymied by her, I don’t know—simply suggested she try to be more discreet.
*** *** ***
I’m sure the reason I was first billeted with Emily was because I was the newest one on the teaching staff. Her eccentricities insured that no one who had previously roomed with her wanted to again. She had a habit of speaking out-of-turn, observing things, then commenting on them to anybody within earshot.
You could be sitting there reading the newspaper or some student’s god-awful poems or just some gasbag, first-draft of your own stuff while Emily sat there, gazing out the window.
Then she’d suddenly interject: To hear an oriole sing/May be a common thing/Or only a divine. Or Like trains of cars on tracks of plush/I hear the level bee. Things like that.
But it didn’t bother me. In fact, I kind of liked it. Emily and I got along just fine. So after the first summer, when Jonas invited me back, I e-mailed Emily to see if she wanted to be room-mates again.
She wrote back:
Of all the souls that stand create
I have elected one.
It was a cryptic response. But I took it as a yes.
*** *** ***
So this is our ninth summer rooming together. People say to me, isn’t she weird? And yes, of course she’s weird. But who here isn’t weird?
Paulette Borosky brings her zazu cushion to readings and sits in full lotus. I can’t figure out if she’s meditating or just showing off.
Cesar Lobloller is an self-avowed agoraphobe, although he never misses either a reading or follow-up gab-fest at Maggie’s. Plus, I’ve already run into him twice at Target. Maybe his new medication inhibits his fear of shopping.
And what about ‘Gregor Samson’? Who actually believes this is the man’s given name? Unless his parents were passive-aggressive clergy or sadistic exterminators.
This summer, Emily has already settled on her paramour. And he’s safe: not married, not a student, not a fellow poet. He’s just a community college librarian in his forties, adjusting to recently-fitted bi-focals. And I swear to God he’s in love with her, in spite of her idiosyncrasies.
One of her more intrusive idiosyncrasies is that she will not spend the night at her lover’s house. She insists he spend the night here, in our ‘suite.’
I don’t like this, but I’m used to it from other summers. On nights when she’s having a sleepover, she’ll leave a little note on the door. It’s always oblique—her sex life rests heavily on metaphors--so that no one except me will know what it means.
Last night’s note was
A narrow fellow in the grass
You may have seen him,--did you not?
His notice sudden is.
“Not so occasionally,” I said to her the next day at lunch.
“Nor so very narrow, either,” she answered, shrugging, “The heart asks pleasure first.”
Just then Pitter Pedersen walked by, holding his lunch tray aloft above our heads.
“And then excuse from pain,” she observed, wryly.
“I know. It’s more the embarrassment of it, really.”
I had had my own giddy fling this summer the first week of the session. With Pitter Pedersen. I don’t normally do things like that. But Pitter was new and famous. Getting him to come here was a coup for Jonas. And I fell under his well-hung-Swedish spell. He dumped me by the next week-end when his lithe, blonde partner showed up. She’s a massage therapist specializing in energy-balancing. She started handing out her business cards right away.
And God bless her, when the Blonde Healer gave Emily her card, Emily scribbled something on the back of it and handed it to me:
I felt a funeral in my brain
And mourners to and fro.
And then she wrote, Pitter is not really a Swedish name, you know.
I’d never known her to speak so plainly before.
*** *** ***
Apart from my small crise du coeur, the summer was running smoothly. The students—most in their twenties or thirties, but quite a few of them older--were above par this year and that just makes everything easier. Jonas and Anna had found a new caterer who was even better than the last one. And Emily’s liaison with the librarian was pleasantly companionable: after Maggie’s I’d come to back to find that they had not yet retired to her bedroom for the ecstasies of summer fucking, but were in the common room waiting to invite me to play a game of Pictionary or Clue, Emily’s librarian pushing and pulling his glasses up and down his nose to try to see the game board. Eventually he and Emily would make their way into her room and I would go to mine, pressing my spongy ear plugs firmly against my head.
I was happy for them, but not keen to overhear.
The summer was passing so uneventfully that I didn’t think much of it when Emily began to say she was ‘feeling poorly.’ Only Emily could say things like ‘feeling poorly.’ If she said she couldn’t go to Maggie’s because she was ‘feeling poorly,’ I figured it was because she knew she and the librarian would have at least ninety minutes for the uninterrupted and time-intensive way—I was sure—she most preferred to fuck.
If she skipped dinner at Jonas and Anna’s because she was ‘feeling poorly,’ I figured it was because being in love can make you want to eat more and more—at least in my limited experience, it does. But Emily liked being stick-thin and the simplest way to do that was to skip dinner altogether. Plus, she always kept a bag of dates, wasabi peanuts and Chardonnay in the suite for snacking.
One day when I stopped back at the suite after lunch I was surprised to see Emily’s librarian emerging from her bedroom, a startled look on his wan face. He closed the door behind him.
“Is Emily ‘feeling poorly’?” I said, meaning to make a joke.
He looked at me.
“Then you know?”
I looked back at him.
“What’s going on? I just—just found out.”
“Found out. Found out what?” I asked, my voice a little shrill. There was always too much damn drama around writers. Maybe around other people, too.
“Here,” he handed me the kind of 3-by-5 card she always left on the door when the librarian came by at night, “She wanted me to give this to you.”
I took the card, but I didn’t read it. I was annoyed by all the subterfuge. I just went into my room to grab the satchel full of books and student papers I’d need for the afternoon seminar.
During the 3:00 o’clock break I walked over to the Campus Center for an iced coffee. That was when I read Emily’s index card:
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me.
Whatever she meant by that.
*** *** ***
I spent the second half of class talking about a student’s knock-off of William Carlos Williams’ poem, “This is Just to Say.” He thought he was being very clever, substituting, “olives” for “plums” and “martinis” for “breakfast.”
I tried to point out the difference between skillful parody and, well, stupid mimicry, though I didn’t come right out and use those words. He was convinced I didn’t know what I was talking about and insisted that his was an ‘enhanced’ version—satirical and cutting--of the Williams poem.
I ended up by nodding at him, hoping he doesn’t take it into his head to ‘enhance’ “The Wasteland.”
But right as class ended and I was gathering up my papers, Jonas appeared in the doorway, looking harried and troubled.
Emily, he said, had gone to the hospital in an ambulance. She had been having a sharp, splitting headache and trouble moving the right side of her face. None of the over-the-counter drugs helped. So finally her librarian dialed 911 and they brought her in for observation. Jonas hadn’t seen her, but he wanted me to know why she wouldn’t be at dinner or the reading.
I told him I thought I should go see her. He said no, her librarian was with her.
“But I’m her room-mate,” I told him, sharply, “I’ve known her for nine years. The librarian’s just a flash-in-the-pan, here today and gone tomorrow.”
Jonas would hear none of it.
“Listen,” he said, “you know what this place is like. I need you to quell rumors. If it gets around that Emily’s at the hospital there will be no end of speculation. No end. And she wouldn’t want that. For the sake of the program, I wouldn’t want that, either. Skip the reading and then go to the hospital, if you want. But come to dinner. And act as if nothing has happened.”
*** *** ***
Before I went to Jonas and Anna’s that evening, I called the hospital. Emily was still in the ER. I thought about asking somebody to find Emily’s librarian, but I didn’t even know his last name.
So I went to the dinner without having a clue as to how Emily was doing. I sat there eating pilaf with pine nuts, lamb kebobs and spanakopita. I drank a glass of Pinot Grigio before dinner and another with dinner. I talked to Cesar Lobloller, who more or less admitted that his new medication allowed him an unprecedented amount of ‘social lubricity’ as he put it. I wasn’t sure if this meant he had begun to shop more often or have safe sex with strangers. Maybe both.
Before I left I talked to Willis, the wan, spindly asthmatic who was going to be tonight’s reader. Sorry, I told him, but I’d have to miss—something urgent had come up.
Willis was deep into a conversation about the fictionality of memoir—or something like that—but he nodded as if he had heard me. Then I took my purse, thanked Jonas and Anna and drove to the hospital.
Emily was still on a gurney in a curtained nook in the ER. Her librarian was perched on a stool next to her. He stood up as I came in and drew me to her bedside. Her face was misshapen, softened like cheese on one side, the skin seeming to slide down her jawbone. Her eyes were closed and I thought she was sleeping.
But her librarian spoke to her, “Em, it’s Isabelle. She skipped the reading to come see you.”
“Isabelle?” she looked at me, opening one eye, but not the other, smiling on one side of her mouth, but not the other.
I nodded, “I thought visiting you would be more interesting.”
I reached out to hold her hand. Emily and I didn’t normally do things like that—hold hands, hug hello or good-bye. She’s from Massachusetts. I’m from Nebraska.
Her librarian looked at me, “We didn’t know what was happening. Em had been feeling so poorly for the last couple of weeks. Then, last night, she got this terrible headache. I gave her Motrin, but that didn’t touch it.”
Last night. Once again I’d gone to Maggie’s, unsurprised that Emily hadn’t come along. Her ‘feeling poorly’ had continued to signal to me that she and the librarian had crossed some threshold into new throes of sexual pleasure. I hadn’t wanted to think about what that might be—particularly given my own sexually-arid climate zone.
“Then this morning—I think you had gone to breakfast already--,” he said gently, as if absolving me of any negligence as a room-mate, “Em’s face—it began to melt.”
He gestured with his hand on his own face, “She seemed to—to droop. Her neck hurt. I rubbed it, thinking she’d slept on it awkwardly, some kind of funny way. But after a while she said her heart was beating irregularly, pounding in her ribcage. And that she was feeling pain behind her left eye.
“That’s when you came in. When I gave you that note. I hadn’t decided whether or not we should just go to the doctor or right on ahead to the hospital. But the pain behind her eye seemed dangerous and so right after you left, I called 911.”
“The note--,” Emily said, softly.
“I’ll tell you what the doctor thinks,” the librarian interjected, a finger to his lips to stop her from trying to talk.
But Emily looked at him and shook her head. Then she turned her drooping gaze toward me.
A charm invests a face, she said, imperfectly beheld.
“Emily,” I said, “You look fine. You’ll be fine.”
Though I didn’t really believe it. Facial paralysis, heart palpitations, pain behind her eye? What else could it be other than a stroke or something else so dire that I would have to tell Jonas and then he would have to tell the staff? After that, Emily would be the subject of their gossip rather than of their personal concern. No one really thought of Emily in a personal way. Except for her librarian. Except for me.
“Bella,” she said. She’d never called me ‘Bella,’ always ‘Isabelle.’
I leaned closer to her. I looked at her sweaty, lopsided face and I wondered about her brain. What was happening inside it? Did she know what was happening inside it?
Crumbling is not an instant’s act, she said, fixing me in her crooked gaze,Dilapidation’s processes are organized decays.
“Is she okay?” I turned to the librarian, frightened, “Why is she talking like that? In riddles—or whatever it is.”
He looked back at me, surprised, “What do you mean? You know Em always talks like that. That’s why she doesn’t like parties—people think she’s had too much to drink or needs a lithium adjustment. When all she’s doing is just talking the way she always does.”
“I guess so,” I said, testily. What could he know that I didn’t when I’d already known her for nine years?
“Still,” I went on, looking at her lopsided face again, “she came here in an ambulance. And now nobody seems to be doing anything to help her. Her face, her heart—why isn’t anybody looking into that?”
“They are,” the librarian said, “They’ve run a bunch of tests--.”
“Well, that’s what I tried to tell you before. The news is actually pretty good. They’re pretty sure it’s only Lyme disease,” he said—but with such a triumphant note that I switched my eyes back to his instantly, “And they found where the tick bit her, high up on her shoulder blade.
“Lyme disease?” I echoed with distain, “Look at her face. What about the headaches and the—the neck pain?”
“Bell’s palsy,” he said, “It can happen with Lyme disease. The headache and the neck pain too.”
“But that’s wrong,” I said, vigorously, “How could Emily get a tick bite? She hates nature. She once said to me, Go not too near a house of rose, and,” I added weakly, “she prefers alabaster chambers.”
“Yes, that’s true. And that’s why all this is probably my fault. She came with me on a hike one day, early on. When we were first—first seeing each other. We went into the woods. We walked, of course. We--we reveled in all of nature. And she said to me,
Split the lark and you’ll find the music,
Bulb after bulb in silver rolled,
Loose the flood, you shall find it patent
Gush after gush reserved for you.
“And the longer we took in the beauty and the power of the woods, the less thought we gave to what we should have been thinking about: high socks, long pants, good sneakers. We just—we just gave ourselves over,” he said.
At this point I had to look down at my hands at the thought of just how much they had reveled in nature. The tick bite on her shoulder blade was more information than I needed.
Nevertheless, I was as relieved as her librarian. Relieved it was Lyme disease rather than all the other, worse things it could have been. Lyme disease was a better diagnosis for the sake of poetry. And for the sake of friendship.
*** *** ***
Naturally, Emily had to leave the program early so she could get the kind of care and rest she needed to recover fully.
The next morning when she left I hugged her frail body and she gave me her new, unbalanced smile. Her librarian was going to drive her back to Amherst. They had asked me if I wanted to come along with them—and honestly I would have. But I knew they were asking just to be polite. I told them no, that I had to stay and teach.
And they both nodded, probably relieved.
By winter Emily had mostly recovered. We’d never kept in close contact, though she would send an occasional email. But this year she even sent a Christmas card and with it, an Emily-version of an annual letter:
Before the ice is in the pools,
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow,
Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!
I didn’t exactly get it. There are a lot of things I don’t get about her. Or her poetry, either.
But I was pleased to find her hand-written postscript, as much a guarantee as any that I would be rooming with Emily again:
The life we have is very great;
The life that we shall see
Surpasses it we know because
It is infinity.