‘You’re in Trouble. Am I Right?’: My Unsentimental Education

Debra Monroe | 2012 | 20 minutes (5,101 words)

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Debra Monroe is the author of five books, most recently the memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal. Her nonfiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Doubletake, The Morning News and The Southern Review, and her Guernica essay “Gray Area” was just shortlisted for The Best American Essays. This is from her sixth book, in progress—it first appeared on John Griswold‘s Inside Higher Ed blog, and our thanks to Monroe for allowing us to reprint it here.

***

In Biology of National Parks, the professor took roll, mangling my last name. At the time, it was Frigen, and people pronounced it Friggin or—afraid of sounding obscene—Frygen. My family said Frigane. Back in Spooner, Wisconsin, population 2,234, everyone had heard it before they read it. No one mispronounced it. I’d never thought about it as a liability until now. I corrected the professor each time. One day, drowsy because I’d waited tables the night before, my head slipped down onto my desk, and I heard the professor say, “The first purpose of color change in chameleons is social signaling. Camouflage is secondary.” Then: “Hey, you with the weird last name, don’t sleep.”

I sat up. When class was over, I put my book in my backpack. I was wearing my last year’s knee-high moccasins with a dress I’d sewn from golden curtains I found at a thrift store—I’d seen a photo of Stevie Nicks and admired the way she’d paired incongruous items, forging together the alien and separating the familiar, as Nietzsche said, though he meant we should disrupt word clichés, not fashion clichés. Still, I felt like I was in grade school. If I got As, I didn’t know why. If I got Cs, I didn’t know why either.

Nothing had prepared me for college—students with more money and composure, dorms that felt like barracks. I’d dropped out and returned, scouring want ads for a place to live.

“Debra Frigen.” Frigane. I looked up. A boy towered over me. “James Stillman here.”

I nodded.

You moved here in June,” he said. I didn’t mention I’d moved here in June for the second time. And I didn’t think about him as I walked to my mustard-colored house by a small lake. He was handsome, but his eyes looked like they belonged to a trapped animal.

I was busy—my typewriter and folder of poems, my classes, my job, my life at the mustard-colored house where I shared a room with a girl named Maribel. In August, the view from its window had reminded me of adolescence: solitary days running a boat along a peaceful shore.

There was nothing solitary about a house with five renters, but not much else had been available or affordable, and I’d told myself I might fit with these down-to-earth housemates. We did have conditions in common. None of us belonged anywhere. We all contended with chronic unrest over who did or didn’t do dishes, who’d eaten someone’s TV dinner, who’d had sex on the living room floor under a blanket with lights turned off and mood music playing, a cue everyone else in the house took.

Except Ellen, who was religious. She flipped on the light and witnessed the spectacle, coitus interruptus under a lumpy blanket, turned her back and shrieked until the boy was gone, then called a house meeting no one would attend. I mostly sided with Maribel, who’d been under the blanket in the living room because she didn’t want to lock me out of our room. Ellen, who’d signed the lease before the rest of us, had the biggest bedroom to herself—not that she’d have sex before marriage, because her body was a temple, she said.

Two girls named Paula, one from a farm, the other a cello player, weighed in. Farm-Paula rolled her eyes and said, “Lordy, it takes all kinds.” Cello-Paula said, “I personally couldn’t have sex in a living room like Maribel, but Ellen needs to get laid.”

I was waiting tables one night when my boss, Kristine, called me to the phone. “Debra!” she said, accented, authoritarian. She was German. She’d married an American soldier during the Allied Occupation. She left the receiver uncovered. “It is a phone call from a boy!”

I must have looked surprised. No one called me. When I answered, James Stillman said he’d gotten my number from the campus directory, called my house, and one roommate said I was at work. He’d asked where. She and another roommate didn’t know, but they found Maribel—brooding and burning incense in our room, I figured—who’d told him the Crosstown Café. James wanted to go out. I was thinking okay: Friday, Saturday.

Tonight, he said. With Kristine listening I didn’t feel I could say I didn’t get off work until late and had class in the morning. I said I’d call him when I got home. I hung up. Kristine said: “Our poetess has an admirer.” She’d once seen notes I’d scrawled on a napkin. For what class? she’d asked. For a poem, I’d answered, embarrassed. Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop. Wonderful, she’d said. And did I know the work of Gottfried Benn? I didn’t.

“Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex,” she said now. “But no more phonings at work.”

When I got home, Maribel, Farm-Paula, and Cello-Paula were waiting in the kitchen. Who was he? How did I know him? When I said he wanted to go out tonight, but it was late and I’d take a rain check, they objected, especially Maribel, who was in love, unrequited. “Not the first time he asks you, no,” she said. “Be picky later.” Farm-Paula: “We have our studies, and we have our real goal, boys.” Cello-Paula: “I tend to agree with Maribel this time. What class is that important?” I balked. My hair smells like kitchen grease, I said. I’d wash it, and it would take an hour to dry. It was fifteen degrees outside. Maribel threw her hands up. “For God’s sake, use a hairdryer. Catch a cold.”

I called James Stillman. He gave me directions to his house.

When I got there, he said he’d been insistent on tonight because his roommates had gone to a concert in Minneapolis, and he’d likely never have the house to himself again. He uncorked a bottle, lit a candle, put a jazz record on. He preferred Hendrix-style guitar. “But it makes conversation difficult.” He showed me his own guitars, erect like trophies in front of a lit aquarium. We sat facing this guitar-and-fish-tank tableau. I took off my coat. Maribel had insisted I forsake thrift store creations for jeans and her own best sweater, mauve, fluffy. “You look incredible,” James said. “I thought you might.”

James rolled a joint and said my boss seemed mean. I said no, she was nice, just strict, no phone calls. He lit up and asked about my roommates, the ones who didn’t know where I worked, the one who did. I explained that I hadn’t known them when I moved in. I’d move to a new house soon—I’d arranged for Maribel’s friend to take my half-bedroom. During Christmas break I’d move to a house even more rundown, but I’d have my own room. I didn’t tell James I didn’t know the roommates in my new house either, that I’d never made friends. He asked where my new house was. It was around the corner. “From here?” He beamed. He set the joint in an ashtray, then started kissing as if to send a message: he had technique, also ardor, but he’d hold back until I murmured yes.

Then the music stopped. James said it was cold—on the couch, outside. “Will your car even start?” It would, I said. If it wouldn’t now, it wouldn’t in the morning either, the coldest hour of the day. His face clouded up. “I don’t know anything about cars. I don’t even have a license.” This was unprecedented. Public schools still taught Drivers Ed. Some people didn’t have cars, but no one didn’t have a license. I asked why not. He said, “My so-called troubled youth. But I’m not getting into that.” He said I should sleep on the couch, and he’d sleep in his room. Because I’d been drinking, he added, nicer. He pulled blankets off his roommates’ beds, heaped them on me, and went upstairs.

When dawn came through the window, I went outside and let my car idle as I scraped frost off the windshield. People were driving to work in rows, their faces calm, brains freshly rinsed by sleep. Then the front door to the house banged open, and James shivered on the porch, bare-chested, disheveled. “Call me tonight after you get home from your whatever.” His voice echoed in the hush. A bundled-up girl walking past, book-bag over her shoulder, glanced at me, then away. I went to class. But first I went to the mustard-colored house to get my textbook. Maribel said my morning return meant that I belonged to James Stillman now. “From here on,” she told me, “your attention is divided.”

 

***

My Intro to Communication professor said, “After you see these pie charts, the reason for reciprocity in self-disclosure will hove into view.” A few days later: “I never appreciated the importance of Uncertainty Reduction Theory until a conversation with a colleague finally hove it into view.” This professor’s verbal tic and systematic enthusiasm about why we divulge intrigued me. But I got a D on my first paper, in which I wrote that that how we talk, act, and look is communication, and we change according to who we meet, becoming the person the other person wants. The professor said I was describing Accommodation Theory with semiology larded in, but none of this was on the syllabus.

More puzzling, I was getting a D- in Freshman English, though I was almost a second-semester sophomore. I went to Dr. Darden Stoat’s office hours to ask why. In the spectrum of professor appearances, he was well groomed as opposed to, for instance, a history professor who wore the same pair of pants hooked at the waist with a paper clip for an entire semester. I spoke to Dr. Darden Stoat—Uncertainty Reduction Theory put to use. How was he? He hated the North. He hadn’t pictured himself at a small state college. Did he have suggestions for improving my papers? He pointed at me. “You digress. But your digressions ultimately pertain. But this scenic route wearies me because I’m busy when I read.” He described the term paper. “It will make or break you.”

I worried about this paper in my new room that sometimes felt lidless—open to the infinity of ideas, best, worst. Train noises muffled the sound of roommates on the stairs. I’d hear a female giggling, stumbling, more footfalls, male voices. This would be the theater major who sometimes spent the night with two gay men. She slept naked except for pearls, she’d explained, though she was a virgin. Another roommate looked like David Bowie and sat in her room listening to David Bowie while crying—I’d asked why, and she’d cried harder and said she couldn’t tell me. I scrubbed the bathroom, though not the kitchen, preserved museum-like in a state of squalor that predated my arrival.

I saw my room as my apartment: apart. But once in awhile I came through the front door and, before going upstairs, gazed at the parlor—its upright piano with carved grapes, the colored glass in panes around windows facing the river, a divan from the Jazz Age. James lived a half-block away now, and I tried to picture him here, sipping tea. I sat down. Dust rose in a puff. The front door opened, and one of my roommates scurried past.

I juggled my job, homework, and James. Our mutual regard had surged, and wariness too. Regard + wariness = hope forcing its way through gloom toward light. Call: I love you. Response: I love you too. I’d had this exchange with my mother. My high school boyfriend and I had said it. I used to have it with the man with whom I’d run away to Colorado. In courtship, the male initiates it. James choked out his part after we’d had sex, increasing the odds that I’d reciprocate because he was virtuoso. He read High Times, Guitar Player, and Playboy, which—say what you will about the objectification of women—informed a generation of men, who otherwise wouldn’t have known, that women have orgasms, a subtle way of arriving at them.

James had read up. He’d practiced on acquaintances, none of whom he’d loved, he told me. He knew better than I did that delay, a perfectly-timed pause and then another, made fulfillment more intense. I was a host of emotion. I felt self-conscious, grateful, powerful, rattled, languid, necessary. What phrase covered this? I said I love you too, though I’d lately told myself in my room, staring at the ceiling, the unpredictable future, to say so carefully this time.

One night I’d dallied too long with James before I went home. My Sacco and Vanzetti term paper was due the next day. I’d xeroxed microfiche newspaper articles from 1919–1927 and circled words used by reporters that suggested presumptions about guilt or innocence—the paper’s gist. I’d tried not to dwell on old photos: Sacco and Vanzetti’s doomed faces; hysterical mobs that wanted Sacco and Vanzetti dead. But, reminding myself to avoid digressions that pertained yet wearied, I’d postponed writing. The theater major was out, I ascertained. My other roommate was listening to David Bowie.

I’d have to write the whole paper now or go to school and beg for an extension—uncertain outcome. Writing now was risky too. I sometimes got late-night brain static, worry in the form of freeze-frame images: authority figures with stern faces. As a child, I’d lie awake thinking that ghosts of people who’d died in our house just before we bought it were mad about renovations. Deferentially, I never touched the banister, the only surface not replaced or refinished. My mother would wake to find me standing over her as she slept. Worried, she took me to a doctor who’d prescribed yellow Valiums, children’s Valium. My dad had the big blue ones. My mother dosed me once, then shuddered and tossed the bottle out. That night in my rented room, I pictured Sacco and Vanzetti, looking sad about their trivial afterlife as a freshman English paper topic. But finally I put my coat over my winter nightgown, made a plan and started typing. I read what I wrote, marked it up, retyped, read what I wrote, marked it up, retyped. Again, again.

Perfectionism I’d so far expended on poems. By 9 a.m., I didn’t have time for another draft, so I hurried to campus. Dr. Stoat said he’d grade our papers—quickly, he stressed—then confer with each of us in private. I handed mine in, avoiding his skeptical gaze.

A few days later, I went to see James. His GPA had dropped, but a trendy psychology professor with a ponytail would hypnotize him to study harder, a tactic that had worked in the past and would again, James said. James had come to college at age seventeen because his social worker persuaded the judge that self-betterment occurs at college, not in the juvenile justice system. First, James got a job on campus, at a cafeteria. He didn’t like it. Now he sold pot. This paid well and conferred status. Everyone he hoped to impress wanted some and kowtowed.

When I arrived that night, one roommate after another greeted me, then departed. James and I sat in the living room. The weather had rallied—spring’s foreshadowing, its foreplay—and I was wearing a tropical skirt with a leotard and a pair of pricey boots my mother had bought when she’d visited, postulating that I didn’t have a better house with better roommates because I didn’t have better clothes. She also bought me underwire bras that made my torso statuesque, and a new coat—not as warm as the Persian lamb coat I’d found at a thrift store.

I settled onto the couch, and a roommate named Bob Barr came back and asked James for a private confab. When James returned, he said Bob Barr wanted weed to take to a party, and James gave him some, free. “This new batch is good. I’d like to get the word out,” he said, sounding like my dad trying to increase foot traffic at the auto parts store. Then: “Bob just gave you a compliment.”

Bob Barr was a short guy who once took first place in a contest for chugging beer. James said, “Bob said that when you first came in wearing your modern coat…” I’d worn it because the temperature was in the forties. My expression must have changed. James proceeded carefully now, as if he’d read a book about how to encourage your girlfriend to make the most of her looks. “Bob said you always look good, but he didn’t know how good until you got rid of the old lady clothes.”

I thought about how to answer. “Like I dress for Bob Barr,” I said.

James laughed. “But I like the new coat. And your sexy boots.”

I didn’t want to look like a Bob Barr fantasy. And I was on a budget—trying to seem as if I preferred carefully mingled cast-offs. But I didn’t own a full-view mirror and got just fleeting glimpses. James had dropped a hint. I was feeling demoted when he showed me an ornately-inked butterfly on paper thin as insect wings. “Pretty,” he said, “blotter.”

I thought of the blotter my mother had put on her desk to keep pens from scratching the wood. James waited for me to react. I didn’t know yet that love seesaws forever between regard for the other and wariness for the self (self-protection). I thought James and I would one day get to reciprocal poise, and I didn’t want to lose face first. “LSD,” he said. I rolled my eyes: “I know that.” I didn’t. But I didn’t want to seem like Farm-Paula.

James grew up in Milwaukee. He shrugged. “So you’ve tripped then. In Spooner?” This seemed unlikely. I lied again and said, “Colorado.” Mentioning my time in Colorado with an ex-boyfriend older than James gave me back my edge. James looked hurt as he pulled the butterfly into quarters. “Ink amount determines potency,” he added. I didn’t say no, because no was complicated. Besides, I thought, I had an easy day tomorrow, lunch shift at the Crosstown Café, then my appointment with Dr. Darden Stoat.

But having lied made the tripping harder, because later—when I looked out the window and saw short people trekking down a street daubed in yellow, yellow pools of light, the people carrying fishing poles, and I thought would they really, in March?—I couldn’t ask James if he saw them too. If he didn’t, if we weren’t supposed to share the seeing, he’d know I was an amateur. I’d have to retract my lie, and retractions are hard, harder still if you’re tripping. I put my thoughts into formation. I gave my thoughts orders. James burst into laughter. “Look. Trolls who fish.” But enough about later. Carpe diem. First, he made us sandwiches and said, “Of course, it takes an hour to get off.”

I nodded, grim. How long would “off” be?

James said, “I don’t how coming down has been for you in the past, but I try to sleep. Coming down is as bad as getting off is good.”

An algebra of pleasure and penance, I thought. Pleasure’s first spate passed through. Vines on my ultra-tropical skirt twisted in a way that seemed right for this room with wet air, aquatic décor, the cumulative effect of a bubbling aquarium with bright fish darting, guitars like Neptune’s forks, and the lush tangle in the window, a houseplant called a dragon tree or corn plant. I held a cup of Red Zinger tea, and the last swallow was a pool surrounded by fronds stirring—a landscape in a cup, miniature and antic, like a snowstorm in a globe, except it was summer here—and James took the cup to the kitchen sink. We went upstairs and had sex, amplified. Hours passed.

“We’ve peaked, now” he said. Sensation crackled like heat-lightning. He slept. I redirected bad thoughts, released good ones, but I got angry, thinking that James liked me more in new clothes and didn’t know how grueling the LSD had been, was. These thoughts jammed, proliferated, so I put on my clothes and modern coat and went home, the black sky getting thinner, letting in light.

At home, I flipped through newspapers my roommate had left in a stack by the door. I found a story about the First Annual Tattoo Convention, with a dozen black-and-white photos, the finalists for the Most Beautifully Tattooed Man and Most Beautifully Tattooed Woman Contests.

I got scissors, cut out these photos, and taped them on the bathroom wall that I’d sometimes surmised needed a poster, pictures, something, and, using bits of newsprint, cut geometric figures to counter the photos. It made an interesting effect, this bathroom with its claw-foot tub, ancient sink, commode with tall tank and chain, ceiling covered by pressed tin, and now the wall with inky-paisley men and women framed by triangle and boomerang shapes. The sky outside was blue now, and I remembered my ordinary life—the Swedish professor who’d like this bathroom, I thought, just as he’d liked the doodling in my notebooks better than paintings I’d completed for class, and he’d asked me to major in art. The sun, all the way up, shone through a grimy window onto the wall, and I saw how crazy I’d been. I ripped it all down, took a bath and hurried to the Crosstown Café.

My mother had brought my bicycle in the car trunk when she’d visited. I rode it to work over slushy streets, thinking exertion would sweat out the last of the drug. Daylight was bright. Traffic droned. I locked up my bike and went inside to eat the special: green beans dressed with Roquefort cheese, a pile of cold chicken and hard-boiled eggs. I contemplated Kristine behind the counter. I felt love and fear. She was sublime as she told me the old man who rented an upstairs room had been incontinent. “He needs not a room but family or a private clinic and he has neither, nicht.” She also worried about the cook, who would do well to take a short stay in a sanitarium, Kristine felt. She was mad that a man who’d come last night for All-You-Can-Eat wanted more twice. She’d asked him, “More which? More chicken or more dumplings?” Both, he’d answered. She’d given him a saucer with a half-dumpling and a wing. “I said, ‘You might get indigestion. You watch it. You should lose weight for health.’”

I laughed, but my laugh sounded loud, so I looked down at the counter and pretended to write on a napkin.

Kristine was staring. “Debra, you are blushing. Just your ears. Red ears. Is it a fever?”

I didn’t want her to see my eyes, windows to the soul, also dead giveaway that someone is addled due to illegal drugs. I clocked in. During lunch rush, I didn’t make mistakes. Then I cleaned up, and the man who washed dishes, lurching because one of his legs was shorter than the other, brought me a tub of clean silverware and twisted his ankle. The silverware flew, each piece a missile with a silver stream shooting behind it. I grabbed the man to keep him from falling and somehow caught pieces of silverware, knowing that any I didn’t catch would need to be rewashed. Kristine clapped her hands, her cue for speed. She couldn’t afford to keep us on the clock past two. I picked up the rest off the floor, washed and dried quickly, slipping spoons, knives, forks into assigned compartments, and these slow-moving pieces had thread-sized, tinsel-like tails.

I left, pedaling across town.

I saw myself in a plate-glass window, perched on my bike. I looked like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. I’d unloosed my hair from its hairnet. I had on my uniform and white shoes. My coat flapped behind me. The hardest part about doing drugs was the acting-upon-acting, I decided. Stone-cold straight or sober, I acted: trying to be who Kristine believed I was, who my roommates hoped to live with, who the girl would be that belonged to James. My self that I preferred stayed underneath those facets, each facet angled to please a different person. To thine own self be true. Polonius, you windbag, I thought. People would fire me, fail me, toss me out. I hurried up the stairs of Hibbard Hall and sat in Dr. Darden Stoat’s office. I said: How are you? I thought: How am I?

I worried that, apart from not passing freshman English, I might have recurring, small-scale hallucinations forever. Probably not, though. Most people who drop acid don’t turn out like the legend of Art Linkletter’s daughter. Dr. Darden Stoat’s beard was shiny as sealskin, and he rubbed it, stalling. So I’d fail, I thought. One fail would be like getting that first small dent in my car. Now I could relax in school. I longed for my car next. Why had I been bicycling in winter? Why was I still wearing this waitress suit, my hair an unkempt snarl? I could do with a short stay in a sanitarium, I thought, missing Kristine. All my selves felt jumbled, not separate like forks, knives, spoons.

Dr. Stoat said, “I was dumbfounded when I read this paper.”

Fine, I thought. You try being me and writing it.

“I need to tell you something. Or inform you.”

I’d taken the scenic route again.

“I’ll be using it in future classes as an example of a successful execution of this assignment.”

“My grade?” I asked.

“Highest possible,” he said. “Obviously.”

Nothing obvious about it, I thought. Gold afternoon sun flickered though the slit-like window onto the edge of his wire-rim glasses. I shook my head. “Are you ill?” he asked me. He shoved a wastebasket in front of me. I moved my chair so light wouldn’t hit his glasses, so the tiny star on the corner of the lens would stop pulsing. I started to cry. I cried from relief. The paper would make or break me; I’d been made. I cried because I’d worked while Kristine watched with a hurt expression because she knew something was wrong and I didn’t confide, and she was too mistaken about my essential goodness to assume the worst, that I was doing drugs at work. I didn’t do phone calls at work. I’d hurried to meet Dr. Stoat, who thought I was good, but I almost wasn’t. Then I remembered Vanzetti, who looked more stricken, more woebegone than Sacco, less ready for the end to which his pamphlets and faith in righteous objection to unjust authority had led.

I needed to make a quick exit from Dr. Stoat’s office.

He hadn’t pictured his future at a small state college. He’d likely read a memo from Student Medical Services about suicide prevention—a kind word here or there making a difference. Separate facilities for mental health didn’t exist, so he couldn’t send me there. He said, “Are you failing other classes?” I’d have my best GPA so far. I said so. He produced a crisp, white handkerchief, and gave it to me. I demurred: how would I get it back to him? He waved his hand in the air, impatient. “You’re in trouble. Am I right?”

I must have nodded.

He said, “You’re not the first female college student to find herself pregnant.”

I stopped crying. I was deciding how to say I was in a different trouble, drug-related. But not that. His glasses were dull now, unlit. Spiral of silence, I thought. It hove into view. Those with an opinion in the minority don’t speak. We were two people in a room. I wasn’t a minority. Yet I was minor. He was major. He waited for me to answer.

No doubt rushing to get this sticky moment of college teaching behind him, he said, “You should finish college. When a problem presents itself, we have options, but if we wait, options shrink.” He was saying, for instance, I could have handled writer’s block many ways, but I’d waited too long and had one option, writing the paper in a grueling vigil. He was saying a pregnant college student could have her baby—back then a pregnant college girl who kept her baby married the father, if he could be coerced. Or she put the baby up for adoption, dropping out for a semester. Or she had an abortion. Maribel, lovelorn, had an abortion, her parents never the wiser. This was a small school, small department, and I wasn’t dropping out, nor would I hurry to class with a gold ring, swollen with child.

I should have said I’m not pregnant. But I didn’t contradict my elders. For the first time since I’d swallowed tissue paper with a butterfly wing on it the night before, I spoke from deep inside the truths I had available. I said, “This is a nice handkerchief.” For the next three years, I’d be better dressed—at a visiting scholar event, or smiling as I rushed out of class, happy to have gotten an A—and I’d see Dr. Stoat in the shadows, his human, intimate smile. I’d change my expression, my posture. I’d never been pregnant, of course. But I didn’t know where I fit. I’d belonged somewhere for a moment, then didn’t. I’d been pregnant with hope, that’s all. I couldn’t begin to tell Dr. Stoat that I wasn’t a diamond in the rough with gloomy regrets. I’d never been her, and I was already more.


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