Saturday, February 15, 2003

Ten Minute Story

I'm really going ten minutes on this one.

Let's see title? The Weak Girl

Mary wasn't always weak. Somehow before adolescence she'd lived up to all those red head stereotypes of being feisty and tough. If other kids cheater--at jacks, dodge ball, four square, hopscotch she'd lash out in a rage. She was an icon of justice--a red headed firebrand. No one could break her will.

She started weakening when she got a scholarship to a private high school. A rich kid's school. Showing up in her striped polo shirt with some paint splotches and green cords. All that had been cool in her grade school Girls hadn't even started wearing bras yet. What made you cool was your ability to kick someone else's ass or talk your way out of trouble (her specialty). They hadn't even started shaving off the body hair yet. What a shock that place was. She was persecuted from the moment she arrived. Then her mother died and that was it: She became weak.

For some reason she stayed weak. She got the grades and escaped from her sorrowful lower middle class home to an East Coast liberal arts college. Small, but the most prestigious of its type. A place where a girl whose back yard was full of broken down appliances could either rule from her roost of lower class bitterness or be slowly eaten alive. Since Mary was weak now, only the latter possibility was open to her.

She met Justine the first day of school. Well, saw her anyway. Entering freshmen had these meetings in the President's office and there sat Justine--smoldering, self-assured, slender, dark. Each student was supposed to say what their special contribution to the college would be. Mary tried her usual self-deprecating humor 'Um...I don't know. I don't even know what I'm doing here,' she said. Justine said something so intellectual it bordered on the unintelligible. All were wowed by Justine.

Justine ignored Mary for a bit of time but in their literary theory class Mary was singled out by Professor Lake. He smiled kindly at Mary and said to the class "If you want to the scoop on DeMan, ask Mary. She wrote the best paper on DeMan I've ever gotten from an undergraduate." Justine later told her it wasn't that--but the fact that nothing Mary ever wore matched. That, and her man-sized watch, Justine said. Justine said that--except for Mary's long hair--she had her pegged for a lesbian. Her long hair--to Justine--simply seemed like some kind of ultra-lesbian statement. Which baffled Mary. None of the lesbians she'd met so far had long hair. In fact, she was embarrassed by her eye-catching long deep red, nearly auburn, hair which she kept long in memory of her mother's love for it. A day didn't go by when someone said "you have beautiful hair." Cars would follow her down the street. Justine's hair was cut short and dark. She wore little granny glasses. Her conviction she was desirable made her so.

Her strength puzzled Mary. She didn't have words for it. Later, she would think it might be called 'a sense of entitlement.' Underneath, she thought, wasn't Justine afraid? Wasn't she also insecure? Wasn't her idea that she should be adored and admired by all simply some kind of bluff? It wasn't in Mary's category of things women could do: Assume they were brilliant. Assume they were beautiful. Assume they were desired by all. Justine would say of some professor 'he wants a piece!' In fact, she was likely to say this about nearly anyone--men and women alike. Occasionally she would assure Mary that people wanted a piece of her, too. To Mary, this seemed ludicrous.

When Mary met Justine's family, her confusion about whether Justine could mean the things she said began to wane: She did. She did mean it. Justine was a category that went beyond Mary's limited experience of broken down mothers of six and Catholic school teachers. Justine invited Mary to stay at her mother's house for the summer so that they could take advanced Greek. Her parents were college professors. Her father had cheated on her mother with a graduate student. Her mother had divorced her father. Her father had ended up with a string of glamorous and sexy women. Her mother had ended up alone. Justine seemed to blame her mother. "He said he had to leave her because she was so angry. He couldn't handle her anger," she said with a kind of contempt. Justine's father was so hard for Mary to put her finger on it. Proud. Almost evilly proud. He was frightening in his smug smile, his dismissive questioning, his false interest in the eccentricities of Mary's working class family. "So you really know how to make lots of different kinds of jello salad?" he would say admiringly. Mary had never told the father this. She had told Justine in a joking way once. She began to realize that she was a sort of subject. Justine needed her companionship but she was also for show.

This would have bothered her more except the hypocrisy was too evident: They were subjects for Mary as well. She respected them as little as they respected her and analyzed and dissected them to the same degree. They were fascinated and amused she attended mass each Sunday (she prayed for her mother). But they seemed to her to be empty people with nothing propping them up than the desire to be better than others. It was mutual watching--mutual observation. She saw that Justine wanted to be like her father. That her father was heartless towards his ex-wife. It was a different sort of world--a world where self-fulfillment ruled, couched in a theoretical language--an unintelligible fog over everyone's self-satisfied eyes. Survival of the intellectually fittest and triumph of the least moral and the most heartless.

For this was the thing: Behind Mary's big blue eyes, her freckles, her sparkling red hair, her involuntary blushes lived a sharp eyed cynic. A weak, vulnerable cynic. But a cynic and observer nonetheless. As bad as the college professors and Justine made her feel she had little doubt that there was nothing there to envy.

The problem was the Justine had the power to make her cry. Mary spent many nights crying in secret in the bathtub with the water running.

And then she met Brendan--Justine's friend from high school. Another professor's son. Back from his Ivy League school for the summer. She was alternately tongue tied and blustery around Brendan but she managed to have many interesting conversations with him. Justine for some reason did not like him. Mary liked to study outside and couldn't bear the library but Justine loved the library. Brendan would walk his dog in the afternoon, run into Mary and they'd walk together...long conversations, long walks.

Nothing much happened. Mary knew enough to squelch all feelings of wanting--of wanting anything. Bad luck and semi-poverty had taught her that. She didn't want Brendan. She didn't want anyone. She finished her summer school classes and left the town--a quick hug goodbye to Brendan and that was it.

As a scholarship student she had to live in the dorms but Justine was moving into a new apartment. Mary--always the helpful friend--helped Justine move in. She stayed the night. During dinner Justine said "You know Brendan? I did that kid." Mary didn't know why but she began to be very, very sad. She was quiet for much of the night and stayed up and read after Justine went to sleep.

Justine soon began avoiding her and not returning her phone calls. This went on for the rest of college.

Graduation came and went. One day in New York City she ran into Justine. They were both interning in New York. They made arrangements to get together for coffee. Justine finally broached the subject: "Mary, you know how we just stopped talking?" Mary, embarrassed at this foray into something personal, merely nodded. "It just freaked me out how you seemed to get all sad whenever I was interested in anyone. It felt like we were too close to a relationship and I liked you but I just didn't feel that way about you."

It was so hard for Mary not to laugh but amazingly she did not correct Justine's impression. She went on, as she always did, weak and compliant as ever. She shied from any idea of puncturing Justine's self-aggrandizing depiction of the death of their friendship. For the rest of Justine's life she would go forth with the image of Mary, the sad thwarted lesbian, broken-hearted over her, Justine.

She later heard Justine was made editor of a national magazine. Her world of glamour far from Mary's pathetic world of social service. Mary continued on, the lowly altruist, driving her rusty 20 year old car and eating frozen food. She'd always known the score--the meek are the weak and the strong rule the earth. She didn't have what it took. She didn't have what it took to move forward in life. She thought to herself: "It isn't self-abasement or insecurity that makes me know I am nothing. For everyone is nothing and we are all destined for obscurity and the grave. Still, it would be nice to forget that sometimes." And this was the only envy she ever felt--only a flicker, always mixed with pity.



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