The names were printed in black on white paper. “Arianna and Thomasina.”
The letter came in 1987, to my father’s house in Cave Creek, Arizona. Or rather, it came to my dad’s shop in town, to Shield’s English Riding Shop, our mailing address. The letter was hand delivered to me by my father when he got home from work.
The college I would be attending in New York was informing me of my dorm placement.
“Try and sound really neurotic in your profile and you might get a single,” someone told me when I was filling out my profile. So I tried.
Three of us were assigned to a room in Westlands, the mansion which was the home of the college’s founders, the centerpiece of campus. Myself and two other girls, Misty, Arianna and Thomasina — mermaids reclining on rocks just offshore, bare breasts tangled in ribbons of wet hair. A trio of spoiled children in white dresses, pouting. Three lambent fairies darting amongst the toadstools and thistle.
“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
― W. B. Yeats
Arianna was from New Jersey, wherever that was. Thomasina was from England —fairytale street cred. Westlands, built in 1912, was a monolith of brick and chimneys, at least to a middle-class girl from Arizona.
I arrived on campus on a humid August day. The oak front door in the middle of Westlands was so big it swung open in slow motion. I moved up the wide, red-carpeted stairs, one hand trailing on the thick, dark wood banister, the other pulling the dead weight of my army green duffel bag, inhaling the smells of oil and uncaptured dust, the musty, aging scents of wealth and permanence, heft and achievement unknown to me in the desert. Life size oil paintings of the long-dead founders stared down at me from their perches in the social register.
Arianna and Thomasina knew to claim their spots early and had taken the beds by the windows. I sat down on a waterproof mattress under the dormer ceiling that angled just over my head holding me like a dusty tchotchke in a dark corner. I had no idea what to do next.
Arianna and Thomasina, Eglantine and Bergamot, Tinsel and Thumbelina, had already unpacked and sorted, were saying goodbye to their parents. Their side of the room glared sharp and bright with order and coordinated bedding. Sliding baskets full of neat, clean clothes. New alarm clocks ticked out the nascent moments of college life. Parents hugged daughters, said goodbye.
My arrival was less ceremonious. More the sending of a corpse out on an ice floe than a rite of passage.
An RA sprung into the room in shredded jeans and spiky hair, gushed a warm
welcome and good cheer, handed us a flyer— an invitation to Freshman Orientation at the President’s House, a stone mansion also lifted from the pages of a folk tale, dusted in snow every winter and swallowed in tulips every spring, turrets and gables and cobblestone paths. “Mingle and Nosh with your new classmates,” the invitation read.
Nosh. I did not know the meaning of “Nosh”. “Nosh” was the Rubicon I could not cross. The 6-hour plane flight, the commute from the airport, the humidity like wet ghosts hanging off every limb —I was so tired. I took wrinkled sheets out of my bag, the vinyl of the mattress bending and creaking and I made the bed. The closets in the room were filled. Mine was in the hall outside the door. Excluded. I wanted to disappear, not to claim my place among all these smart people in this beautiful place.
“I’m not going.”
“Really?” Arianna asked. She was Italian with olive skin and black eyes. Her smooth dark hair stopped under her chin, her lips a red rosebud, usually smiling. It is remarkable how a few words can etch themselves into memory, attach themselves to someone, shading her in benevolent colors that would never dissipate.
Sitting in a humid dorm room on the third floor of a mansion in New York, an invitation in my lap to an even more imposing mansion, full of witty, clever students and, God forbid, professors, I was trounced. A new stepmother had unmoored me, sent my life adrift. I had no one in Arizona. I had no one here.
“You really should go,” Arianna said, an emissary of kindness in this strange place.
“You really should go” — persistently warm and healing balm in a cold memory of a strange, echoing dorm room and bottomless loneliness.
Elie Wiesel wrote,
Most people think that shadows follow, precede or surround beings or objects. The truth is that they also surround words, ideas, desires, deeds, impulses and memories.
What shadows surrounded my ideas and desires in 1987? I wasn’t trained in the harness of goals and aspirations. My father was first generation American. He went to war (WWII) and then to college and, except for a string of bad marriages to beautiful women, it all pretty much worked out. My future was not a thing we talked about.
This past June, I attended my 25th reunion at that little college, a time when most people assess precisely how it all worked out. My best friend, an artist, morphed into an anesthesiologist. Another alum, “Our favorite person,” as my husband has called him ever since, works in public television. There’s a documentary editor. A horror writer. A famous female historian. Friends became designers, CEOs, lawyers, poor actors and rich actors. A historic preservationist. I became none of these. But I’m almost 50. We’re all almost 50. Nobody really cares.
Thomasina remained in England, raising her pixie brood. Arianna is spectacularly successful in her field. She’s madly in love with her dog. She is still just as kind.
During dinner and dancing on the lawn, Arianna and I escaped back to Westlands. We walked up that same staircase holding the banister thick as our thighs that will outlast us. Stepped carefully down the dark hall, past the boarded up dumbwaiter than never failed to spark disappointment that the servants would be not be sending up a hot meal. The dorm was essentially unchanged, a time capsule with a view of the much older versions of ourselves laughing and drinking and dancing on the grass outside its windows.
In 1987, mothers who packed toiletries and warm socks, worried if their daughter’s coat was warm enough, who stood in these rooms shaking out down comforters over their children’s beds, fathers who packed the car and checked the tire pressure before leaving —or who stayed at home— would not live to the 25th reunion. We did not know that then. Or didn’t think about it. For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
The founder of our college, William H. Lawrence, wrote, “In my opinion the finishing school of the older type has failed because it prepared women to live chiefly as ornaments of a man-ruled society.”
I, neither physician nor movie star nor fetted author, who picked a husband very carefully and stayed home to raise the fruit of our union spending a great deal of energy decorating houses along the way, have to wonder: Was I an ornament? A brood mare? Mere scaffolding, standard and replaceable, to my husband’s career?
When my children were little, my cousin’s then husband—an attorney—asked me point blank, “Don’t you think you wasted your education?” Crap! Did I?
The shadows around my desire for marriage and children are opaque and legion: the need for security after a childhood of uncertainty, the desire to provide that security to my own children, the redemptive power of repair. I recall my professor and don Bill Park, years after graduation, trying to persuade me it was not an either/or proposition, not career or family, but my archetype of motherhood was rigid: working mothers drank hard and chain smoked and annihilated their children. Even with a fancy education under my belt, shadows around my pain confined me.
Among my successful peers last month, I was just fine— happy enough and secure enough to be drunk in love with each and every one of them and with their accomplishments. The shadows around my classmates were acceptance, whatever the disappointments of the last 25 years, joy in being together, gratitude for the generous impulse some rich man had a hundred years ago that brought us all together.
At the reunion, during a late-night, liquored-up dorm conversation all was revealed. I believe Chase related the oracle . . . Chase, who, when I first saw him in 1987, struck me as the most beautiful species of blue-eyed human boy I had ever seen.
The summer before our Freshman year, an older student interning in the admissions office handled dorm placements. We are a self-selected group who plays with language; she chose to have some fun with it.
Natalie Fingerhut and Prudence Cumberbatch were mellifluously paired. There was a floor full of Jennifers. Two boys, last names Strauss & Strouse, lived in room that became known as The Strauss House. Arianna, Thomasina and Misty were a deliberate inside joke it took me nearly 30 years to get.
Well played, Life. Well played.