I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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For months afterward I had the sense that I was being questioned by reporters, or addressing a judge: For the record, Your Honor, the accident was not my fault. I plead not guilty. . . . And I was not in love with her!
First of all, I could not have fallen in love with Laurel. Besides being too young, my student, and not (or not yet) a lesbian, she was not my type. With her round face, her long twiddles of hair, and her compassionate eyes, she seemed like a nun.
The engraved numbers on the headstone looked symmetrical and silly: 1978 – 1998.
Laurel was not the type I am at thirty-five, the type of professor whose face is perpetually sunburned, never tanned, whose handouts emerge from the printer askew, whose voice-mails go unanswered. Nor was she the square-shouldered, forward-looking, strong-cheekboned type of woman I struggle across dance floors for, place personal ads in search of, and talk too much about after she has left me.
Laurel could not leave me. Being a double major on honors scholarship at Phillips Mission Baptist College, where I taught the paltry women’s-studies offerings, she had to take my classes nearly every term, for what should have been a neat four years. But during Christmas break in her senior year, while housesitting for me, Laurel attempted to drive my car over hail-slick streets to her boyfriend’s house, and by the time the EMTs, police, and firefighters reached her body, her beer-diluted blood had seeped into her daypack and stained the upholstery. Empty Rolling Rocks lay in the back seat. The bottles, along with Laurel, had come from my house.
Laurel was survived only by her father, whom I had met the previous spring. I had been summoned to the dean’s office, where her father, Mr. Anderson, sat leaning forward in the good leather chair, stomach spread between his legs. Clumps of grizzled hair grew over his ears, which stuck out from his papery, old-man skin.
When I walked in, his coarse eyebrows rose: apparently, I was not what he’d been expecting. No army boots, no crew cut, no visible tattoos (he couldn’t see the orchid twined on my left shoulder). I should have lipsticked a big lavender L on my forehead, I suppose.
The dean — a neat, long-closeted little man who had his soft red hair cut in a way that made him look younger, and he knew it — had sent me a vague, warning e-mail. Now we were meeting for the requisite “candid talk.” After the preliminaries (we remarked about the decibels generated by two juniors playing drums on the quad, and ruefully discussed the poor soundproofing of old buildings) we came to opening arguments.
Mr. Anderson breathed through his nose at me, gathering pressure. “I am grateful,” he began, as flatly as possible for a Southerner, “for the time you have given my daughter. She tells me that you have taught her more history than she acquired in all of high school. You know she went to Rosemount.”
I hadn’t known — Laurel didn’t brag — but I nodded to show that I was impressed.
He continued. “I have read some of her papers — when she shows them to me, you know.” A contrived chuckle and fraternal nod to the dean. “I thought her paper on that woman abolitionist was very good. Not that it’s my field, of course.” He sighed. “But it’s just that . . .”
Sensing the onset of sincerity, I tried to listen well.
“She has told me — in confidence, of course — that she is aware of certain aspects of your personal life, your . . . I don’t recall what word she used.”
“Orientation?” the dean offered. I looked over to see if he might wink at me, but the man made seventy thousand a year.
Mr. Anderson nodded, relieved. “And I am concerned.”
His face turned to me, heavy and flaccid, and I looked back hard, seeking evidence of love for Laurel, seeking connection. His eyes were tight gray stones, but stones sometimes crack.
“I know very little about higher education,” he went on, “but I know better than to question the integrity of the professors here.” A pause.
Into the silence, I murmured, “That’s good.” It didn’t seem the right response, somehow. I crossed my ankles but forced my arms to stay open. “I’m sorry that you’re uncomfortable. How can I . . . what can I say that would make you feel more . . . comfortable?”
He wheezed, and a hoarse, tobacco-scented cough came out of him. He looked and sounded ancient, but he wasn’t: Laurel had recently mentioned his sixty-fifth birthday. I felt embarrassment for him, almost pity. He raised to his mouth a clean linen handkerchief — the same kind that Laurel carried and brought out whenever someone was crying. This man had wiped her tears, fed her oatmeal, paid her private-school fees — although he didn’t need to pay her college tuition; she’d won a full ride. Clearly, he cared for her and wanted what was right and good for her, as he saw it.
“Mr. Anderson,” I said, “your daughter is the best student at this college. I’m sure you know how brilliant she is. It’s an honor to have her in my classes. She’s a leader, she’s wonderful in class discussions, and her papers are so good I use them as examples for other students. She and I do have an unusually close relationship; it’s true. But please —” I sounded desperate. I leaned forward, feeling foolish in front of these two significant men. “I hope you don’t think for a moment that anything improper has gone on. I would never, ever do something like that. I am Laurel’s mentor.” I thought, Please, please, don’t take her away. Pretty often she is the reason I get out of bed in the morning.
The dean shifted in his chair, suddenly alert. “I believe Mr. Anderson is concerned about Laurel’s need for a role model,” he said, cryptically.
“I don’t understand.” I looked from the dean to the older man. Did he think queerness was contagious? “What are you hoping I will . . . model for her?”
Southern distaste for being explicit showed in Mr. Anderson’s face. “I would like for you to model the Christian values we have tried to teach her.” He looked at me, as if waiting for me to agree.
I could neither confirm nor deny my ability to model Christian ideals. “How would you want me to go about doing that?” I said, as politely as possible. “I mean, it’s a little late for me to pretend I’m married.”
He leaned back, and I felt as if I had won a round. If the dean had led Mr. Anderson to believe I’d crawl further into the closet, produce a fiancé, or fake a conversion to Baptism, well, he’d been disabused now. My loyalty to the college and desperation for a job didn’t extend to telling lies, especially not to students I cared for.
The dean flattened his palms against the wooden desk. “I think there was another concern that we hoped you could help us with,” he said to me. Turning deferentially to Mr. Anderson, he asked, “Would you like to mention that other matter?”
Mr. Anderson drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Finally, he said, “I assume you are familiar with the young man Laurel keeps company with.” Sighing through his nose, he continued. “It isn’t that I dislike the boy; it’s just that, in my opinion, she is too young to be spending so much time with him. I have reason to believe she sometimes spends the night at his apartment, off campus.” His thick fingers tapped silently. “Her mother would not have wanted it. Laurel won’t listen to me, but her mother would have convinced her not to do that.”
Her mother. Of course, I thought. Raising Laurel alone, he was worried about the lack of female influence in his daughter’s life. He wanted me to act, as the state would have it, in loco parentis: in place of parents. Or, in this case, in place of mother.
“Would you like me to talk to her about that — about staying at her boyfriend’s?” I said. It certainly wasn’t in my job description, not even under the loosest interpretation of “advising,” but if Mr. Anderson wanted me to warn Laurel against heterosexual coupling, I’d oblige.
Your Honor, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I thought I was doing everything right. Even the time Laurel and some other students came to my house for an end-of-semester dinner, and Laurel stayed on after the others had left and told me that she had kissed a girl, another student, both of them drunk, on a dare — even that time, despite our both having had some wine, and even though she ended the story with “It wasn’t a very good kiss for me . . . ,” leaving the silent suggestion hanging in the air that I, being older and smoother and softer, could offer her a better one, one with all the lesbian womanness of real adult women kissing — even then I refrained. Despite the merlot and her glimmering look and the suddenly romantic candles, I looked at the tablecloth (not at Laurel’s mouth) and said lightly, “So, how was it for Nicole?’’
Laurel laughed and said the other girl hadn’t even remembered it the next day. Then she went on to discuss hangover cures, and the moment had passed.
I never even fantasized about her.
At the end of the fall term of her senior year, Laurel strolled across the creek from the dorms to faculty row, where I lived, bearing fresh chocolate-chip cookies from the school cafeteria.
“When I used to housesit for my parents,” I told her, “I always had parties. So it’s all right with me if you have people over. Just keep it small and quiet, OK?” Laurel was leaning on the kitchen island, watching me pack the espresso filter with finely ground coffee.
“Sure,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to scare the kitties.”
“Or the neighbors,” I added, wrestling the long-handled filter into place. I would give Laurel a few dollars a day to baby-sit Hope and Glory, my two spoiled domestic short-hairs, but even without payment she’d have preferred spending her Christmas break at my place to the isolation of her father’s farm. He lived on 150 acres of peach trees several hours out of town. Besides, Laurel didn’t trust Rusty, her decade-old Volvo, to lumber up and down those hills very often.
“Where are you going?” Her grainy voice seemed to belong to someone older. Perhaps the Marlboros she smoked were deepening her tone. But her voice lilted, too, as if she had once lived in the Scotland of her ancestors.
“Chicago,” I said. “But it’s a secret. I’m interviewing for another job — please don’t tell anyone.”
I peered at the stream of black coffee pouring into the espresso cup. “Oh, it’s no big deal. Probably about eight million people applied. They’re interviewing finalists on campus. I doubt I’ll get it.” I had been visualizing the move to Chicago so hard I could taste snow and real scholarship. I was ready for wind and winter and a respected women’s-studies department. I wanted to live where queers outnumbered Baptists. I’d sent résumés out to any city with decent gay bars; anywhere without churches looming at every intersection, anti-Halloween movements, and landlords who sent part of my rent to the radical Right. I missed coffeehouses, independent bookstores, vegetarians, and liberals. I hated greens and grits and barbecue and beer.
I kept beer in the house for guests, Your Honor. She was almost twenty-one!
Laurel shook off her jacket, pulled a rumpled ponytail from her collar, and pushed up her sleeves. In the colder months, she wore layers of clothing — turtlenecks and overalls and flannels several sizes too big. I kept to myself the fact that she dressed like a New England dyke — the kind with an organic herb garden, too many cats, and a long-term girlfriend in a wheelchair.
She leaned against the microwave, head on her hand. “I can’t imagine this place without you — the college, I mean.”
Too pleased to reply, I opened the freezer and took out a plastic bag that rattled with frozen coffee beans. “I stocked up on your drug of choice. I even got you some Jamaica Blue Mountain. Ever had it?”
She shook her head. “They don’t serve that in the cafeteria.”
“It’s even better than Kona, and slightly cheaper.” I closed the freezer and opened the fridge, displaying a bottom shelf full of six-packs. “I also got Rolling Rock. I know that’s what you live on when you’re here: beer and coffee.”
“Oh, I ate some of your chocolate last time. It was good.”
I handed Laurel my extra car key, an indication of trust. “In case Rusty goes into one of her periods of decline, you can use the Honda.”
“Hey, thanks,” she said. “That’s a relief. She’s been having a little transmission problem. I’ve been in denial about it, but Devon drove her the other day, and he noticed it. But I won’t use your car unless I have to.”
“No problem.” Feeling almost maternal, I began steaming milk for her latte.
Having spent nearly three hundred dollars on my charcoal gray silk suit, I went ahead and spent another forty to have the Chicago Midway Marriott stylist arrange my hair in a professorial bob, neither rigid nor sexy. At 9 A.M., dressed up, made up, and tense, I took a taxi to the campus.
The women’s-studies department occupied an old science building that retained the chemical aura of objectivity. A metal sink filled the corner of the secretary’s office, and the walls were painted a cool, flat green. Sitting in a vinyl chair, waiting for the head of the department, I held in my stomach and prayed.
Dr. Hudson opened her office door at ten after ten. She was plump, tall, and ungainly. Despite the presence of a wedding ring on her finger, I liked her immediately, maybe because her office looked worse than any I’d ever seen. Piles of papers on the floor towered higher than my head, like stalagmites. We had to weave through them to reach her desk — actually two desks, placed back to back, both overflowing with mounds of folders, flyers, and letters. “What You Need to Know about Breast Cancer” peeked out from a stack of purple brochures on queer studies. My kind of woman.
A phone rang, and Dr. Hudson’s lips parted as she looked around. “Oh, I know who that is. I need to get it.” She flapped around her desk, trying to locate the source of the ringing.
I spotted the cord. “Here!” I said. I traced the wire to where the phone was hidden under a newspaper, then grabbed the receiver and handed it to her. See how I contribute?
Dr. Hudson wedged the receiver under her chin, saying, “I’m so glad. . . . What? . . . Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” She held a fountain pen in one hand and a huge planner in the other.
I leaned back and breathed, visualizing dropping by this office and leaning in the doorway to ask a question or make a witty observation for which she would never be too busy. If I got this job, what a good, community-building, team-playing lesbian I would be.
Dr. Hudson hung up, swept a space clear on her desk, wrote something down, and then came and sat by a stack of newspapers on a love seat. Smiling across about two hundred books, she said, “Why do you want to come here?”
I’d answered the same question in my cover letter and discussed it on the phone, but this time I came nearer the truth: “I like my job where I am — at least, I love the students. I love my classes. But Georgia is . . . I’d like to teach and work in an atmosphere that’s more liberal and open-minded.” Did I need to add, state, scream, I am a dyke! I need out of the closet?
Dr. Hudson nodded. “I lived in the South for part of my marriage,” she said. “I never felt very much at home there.”
She praised a paper I’d given the year before, then asked about pedagogy. I sat up straight and answered smartly. I looked right into her eyes and talked lesbian theory. “My students have trouble with some of the French stuff,” I said, “but everyone likes Adrienne Rich.”
She smiled. “Where would we be without Adrienne?” She pronounced the name the way I had, the French way. I took it as a sign.
The interview lasted all day, after which I returned, limp but optimistic, to my hotel. As I was packing for the flight back to Atlanta, I called work to check my voice-mail. The first message was from campus security.
Usually when I arrived home from a trip, all the booze in my house would be gone, and in its place would be a three-page note in Laurel’s eccentric, curlicued handwriting, containing flowery observations on life in my home, and apologies and offers to pay me back. To make amends, she left me pints of Ben and Jerry’s, often partially eaten, always chocolate.
I imagined that, in my absence, my house saw little parties where Laurel would forget about her glass of Chablis while the young men who hung around her like satellites guzzled. I hoped she drank sanely, perhaps a beer in the evening while she perused my journal, which I hid uncarefully in a sock drawer. The few times she had eaten dinner with me, she had drunk exactly as much as I: i.e., not much. Sometimes her own journal entries — written for class and turned in for a grade — referred to hangovers and wild parties, but few students’ didn’t. Should I have worried? Could I have known?
When I got home, I was surprised not to see my Honda in the driveway — then I remembered: it had been totaled. At least I would never have to see the car in which Laurel had died. I imagined a mess of twisted metal; the pungent stains of human debris; shards of windshield, of bone, of dark green glass.
I had stocked Rolling Rock because I was too cheap to buy imported beer, which she might have drunk more slowly. My cheapness, along with my indulgence, had killed Laurel. My beer had killed Laurel; there should have been no alcohol in the house. (If I had not left beer, though, she would have brought in tequila.) My stupid little car had killed Laurel. If I’d driven a Volvo, like the one her father had bought her . . .
My dining-room table held a jumble of clean, unfolded clothing. An inside-out black sweater lay curled like a cat on the couch, beside her reading glasses.
I picked up the glasses and looked through the frames where her eyes used to be. Those tortoise-shell ovals made me see her whole face behind them. In class, I could always turn to her for a thoughtful answer. When silence filled the room, she would speak. And when someone else was talking, she’d listen, looking through those glasses, giving that student her full attention.
My answering machine had recorded part of a conversation. A male voice said, “Hey, Laurel, are you there? If you’re there, pick up the phone. Come on, I know you’re there. I’m just going to keep talking and talking —”
Laurel’s voice cut in, sleepy and struggling: “Hello. What? Oh, hey.”
“Are you asleep? It’s only nine o’clock. I thought you were coming over. You want me to call back later?”
“No, I have to get up. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep, I —” The machine clicked off, and I wondered whether I should save those inches of tape, for a time when the timbre of her voice had left my memory.
As I moved through the house — unpacking my garment bag, doing the few dishes she’d dirtied — I kept expecting to turn around and see her, perhaps coming from the shower wrapped in my robe, or shading her eyes with her hands to peer through the screen door at me. It felt as if I needed to return the basil plant she’d brought from her dorm room, or call her to come and collect the books and CDs she’d left.
On the night table lay a novel by Charles Bukowski. Indulgently, I had let Laurel do a paper on him — specifically, on his implied attitudes toward women’s sexuality. Had that book made her think that she, the five-foot-two girl who went without food, the air child, fey little Laurel, could drink as that horrible, hulking man had done? I hated Bukowski more than ever, now that he’d killed Laurel.
I didn’t serve her that beer, Your Honor. I would never have let her drive my car if I’d known she was drinking! I made the point a thousand times to myself, to the imaginary members of the jury, and to the real officers of the law who showed up at my house with their blue suits and small notebooks. I let them sit on the couch where Laurel had lain, and I tried to answer their questions like a sane, innocent person. It didn’t take long for them to nod at each other and stand up to go, apologizing for disturbing me at a difficult time.
The funeral happened fast, only two days after I got home. Georgia’s despicable sun shone as if for a spring wedding, and nearly every member of the faculty — more than a hundred bodies — and scores of students interrupted their Christmas breaks to attend. Dozens of Anderson relatives and friends crowded the big Baptist church, as well. The enormous, gaudy white lilies and chrysanthemums, the tailored black and navy everyone wore, and the preacher’s deep, down-home voice all seemed ungodly foreign to me, something Laurel would have written about with irony in her journal.
Although I hadn’t wanted to go to the viewing the night before, to see little Laurel laid out, I had gone anyway, thinking I would simply speak to her father and then leave. But I arrived so early that almost no one was there yet, and it would have seemed rude to ignore her. So I had to walk by the pale blue coffin and peer through blurred vision at Laurel, who looked neither asleep nor peaceful, but very still and made up.
A solid throb rose from my chest, blocking speech and making me flush. The ache felt all the worse for being secret. No one, I thought, could know how much I had adored Laurel. It was unseemly and inappropriate to think so highly of a student, yet I would never give up the sweater she had left at my house. I looked forward even more to leaving the college, because there was no point in being there without Laurel.
I was sitting at the back of the room, trying not to let my crying become vocal, when Mr. Anderson loomed over me. I had already shaken his hand and murmured sincere condolences. What more could he want?
“I wonder if you would have dinner with me one evening,” he said quietly. “I know that our last meeting was somewhat unfortunate, but I would appreciate it if you would be kind enough to enlighten me about a few things.”
Oh, God, I thought. He’s going to have me arrested for giving beer to a minor. He’s going to have me fired, then tortured and killed. He thinks — he knows — that it was all my fault. “Of course,” I choked out, tears drying on my cheeks. “I’d be happy to.”
A week after the funeral, Mr. Anderson and I met at a restaurant I could never afford: the Peach Valley Inn, an old hunting lodge remodeled in “Ye Olde” style and settled smugly into the side of the city’s best hill. As I drove into the entrance, the rearview mirror revealed a slice of the black-and-silver cityscape below, twinkling and empty.
Battalions of mums lined the Inn’s driveway, at the peak of which BMWs halted and valets in ill-fitting caps relieved patrons of the chore of parking. Brake lights flashed red in the cramped lines of traffic snaking up the slope. I parked my rented car on the sidelines.
Standing by the hostess’s table, I watched Georgians bundled against the fifty-degree weather totter in to spend inherited money. I waited for Mr. Anderson the way you wait, after being pulled over, for the police officer to belly up to your window and demand your license. Red and white lights flashing, flashing, flashing.
The flashes were coming from a Christmas tree. It wasn’t a real holiday tree, with boughs bearing Santas and angels — just a potted ficus strewn with little white bulbs. They flickered; that was all. The red was coming from outside, from the flashing brake lights. Brakes plus ficus equalled police cars, Merry Christmas, no more Laurel. Was I losing my mind?
Mr. Anderson pushed through the doors chest first, outfitted in an old, fur-lined coat. Laurel had been vegetarian. (In reaction to such garments?) Usually I forgot and left food containing meat in the fridge for her; I’d come home to find ten-day-old chicken tortellini rotting in the Tupperware. She wouldn’t even eat mushrooms because fungi might be sentient. Now her father wore brown fur bunched around his neck, this throat protected by mink or muskrat.
He looked frozen, his cheeks pink and stiff. Perhaps the heater in his Caddy doesn’t work, I thought, and then mentally slapped myself. This man could use some comfort, and, for all his flaws, he had raised Laurel. After he removed his gloves, I shook his frigid hand, trying to press back, but his palm engulfed my own. Too late, I considered kissing his cheek, dutiful and daughterly.
“Nice to see you, Elizabeth,” he said.
Try “Libby.” No one uses all four syllables. I started to say it was nice to see him, then thought of complimenting his ostentatious outerwear. What came out was “Nice to see your coat. Fur, isn’t it?”
Something sparked in his eyes, but Southern politeness prevented him from laughing. Nodding, he patted my arm and told the hostess, “I’d appreciate if you would get us seated as soon as you can.”
Was he anxious for pre-dinner drinks? If so, then it might indicate that he was an alcoholic, or at least someone who managed tension with drink, and thus I could blame his genes and him, not myself — in loco parentis though I might have been — for Laurel’s habit. But when the waiter asked if we cared for anything from the bar, Mr. Anderson passed, saying he’d have wine with dinner. Although I would have appreciated a gin and tonic, I requested seltzer. After the waiter left, I kept my eyes down, studying the pink linen napkin I was twisting into knots below the table. This is ridiculous, I thought. Breathe. Look at him.
Mr. Anderson was gazing out the window into space, not focusing on anything. It was the most uncomfortable silence I had ever endured. Everything I could think of to say was inane: Chilly night, isn’t it? Sure is dark out there. Do you miss Laurel?
Then I remembered a trick from teaching. At the start of a new class, when you ask the first question, there will be silence as the students wait to see if you really want them to answer. The silence will last a long time, and it will seem longer to you than to them. The only way to resist breaking it is to count to yourself. And so I began counting. I got to thirty before Mr. Anderson spoke:
“I’m sorry,” he said, “if I appeared ungrateful the last time we met, at the college. I hope you can understand that, as Laurel’s only parent, I have made some mistakes. I never expected that I would become my child’s sole guardian. In my day, fathers were not involved in child-raising. When my wife died of cancer, I thought of sending Laurel to live with her aunt, because I felt supremely inadequate.” He laid his hands — large, clean, and white — at the sides of his plate. “But I couldn’t, Elizabeth. She was so bright, so dear that I wanted her near me. And so I have muddled through the last ten years without a mother for her. She has never seemed to me to be permanently damaged by the loss.”
It was an odd place to stop speaking. Then I realized that he was seeking reassurance. “She seemed very stable and well adjusted,” I said, although I knew that, at times, Laurel had visited the dark land of despair. Most students went there occasionally, but she had gone further than the others, and had stayed longer. Still, I thought she’d done so with grace. Her despair had not been depression, but a pure grief, like that of a little girl missing her mother. “She was very healthy.”
When the bread and my drink arrived, we moved into the safe territory of praising the dead. He asked me to tell him about his daughter. “Anything,” he said, loudly enough that the couple at the next table turned their heads, thinking he had addressed them. “I would like to hear any details you can give me, even the most mundane. I’m sure that sounds foolish.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said. “I understand. You want to be in touch with as much of her as you can be.” I sounded too counselorish, too much like an advisor seeing a freshman through a crisis — but, freshman-like, he nodded, the rims of his eyes red.
Since Laurel had been about my favorite human being on earth, certainly in the southeastern United States, it was easy to remember anecdotes. As I spoke, Mr. Anderson neither acknowledged nor attempted to suppress the translucent streaks descending his cheeks. They were like breathing.
I dipped a crust into a glossy plate of olive oil and told him how I had first encountered Laurel:
One of the fraternities on campus had an annual festival called “Southern Splendor.” For a month or so beforehand, the members had to grow beards. In class, they’d slouch in their chairs, their blank faces temporarily distinguished by Lincolnesque growths of whisker.
Their dates would come to the big weekend bringing corsets and long, plantation-style dresses. For two days the partygoers would listen to an all-white band play Dixieland, roast a pig, and drink. They drank Jack Daniel’s and grain alcohol and kegs of Bud and cases of Heineken and bowls of lightning blue punch and frozen peach margaritas.
The festivities would peak on Saturday night, with the Plantation Ball. The girls would dress in pastel-colored gowns, and their boyfriends would buy corsages to match. Extra booze would be trucked in from a cider press in Tennessee, and someone’s brother would fly in from Ohio with sweet corn, picked that morning. The exhausted undergrads would twirl each other around the living room in dances their parents had paid good money for them to learn a long time ago, before the girls had come out, before the boys had mustered erections.
They used to go so far as to hold a “slave market,” auctioning off kidnapped professors for charity, until the college — particularly the faculty, pissed off at losing a weekend evening — stopped the practice in the name of civil rights and good taste.
Three years before, I told Mr. Anderson, at the height of Southern Splendor, some thirty students savvy enough to make their own friends sans fraternities had rented Union uniforms from a theater company. They assembled themselves into ranks and marched down frat row in formation, slim blue bodies straight, steps synchronized. The dean, a few other liberal professors, and I stood on the creek bridge and watched. The pride I felt hearing the drum move that squadron toward the raucous ball equaled, I was sure, that of the proudest parent watching her offspring slam-dunk a basketball or play in a symphony. For us, this was Homecoming, and history said that we were going to win.
The blue-uniformed students marched closer to the “plantation,” their expressions humorless and adult. When they reached the fraternity yard, one of them blew a whistle and called an order; the troops executed a quarter turn, and the party band trailed off. Bearded boys and long-gowned young ladies crowded onto the front porch and balconies, juleps in hand. The two sides stared at each other. Then one of the soldiers stepped forward, unrolling a long scroll of paper, and began to read.
The voice was clear, low, and feminine — Laurel, her hair tucked up under her cap. She got halfway through the Emancipation Proclamation, her voice rising as the frat boys threw beer bottles, before the Confederacy rushed the Union Army and tore the paper away.
Sick and scared, I watched frat boys cream peaceniks. In seconds, we went from the Civil War to Vietnam. Some of the professors waded into the fray and started shouting, but history said that we would lose. After the campus security guards arrived, I went home.
Mr. Anderson’s tears came more thickly, and he pushed away his salad. I felt terrible, wondering whether I should have told that story. The waiter came back to see if everything was all right. Did we want anything? I looked up, unable to focus on his face, and thought that everything was wrong and that if I wanted anything, it would be to go home to find Laurel’s mess and a small party in progress.
Mr. Anderson ordered an entree — not because he expected to eat it, I supposed, but because if you invite a person to dinner, you order a meal. “I’ll have the same,” I said through a tight, sore throat, and the waiter, embarrassed but sympathetic, left us.
“I don’t think anyone really got hurt,” I said to Mr. Anderson. “No one hit her. If I had it to do over again, I’d have gone in there and defended her. I didn’t know her then, but now, if anyone tried to lay a hand on her . . .”
Of course, now no hands would be laid on Laurel in any way, not in violence or affection, nor warning or blessing, passion or praise.
“You must hate me,” I said miserably. “If I were you, I’d blame me. I mean . . .” I felt Northern and awkward, unable to say a graceful word. “I just want to say that I know I should never have left beer in the house. It was a terrible thing, but . . .”
I paused, hoping he would interrupt, but he simply narrowed his cold gray eyes, made more human and more desperate by the red streaks.
“. . . she drank anyway,” I fumbled on. “They all do. I just never thought she’d be foolish enough to drink and drive. She was so young. I overestimated her judgment. I trusted her, but she was too young.”
Mr. Anderson nodded once, and let his chin rest near his chest. “I see,” he mumbled, and cleared his throat.
He didn’t see. I couldn’t make him see. I fled to the ladies’ room and honked into a coarse paper towel. The evening was turning into a morass of bodily fluids and guilt. This decent man’s daughter had died due to my lack of judgment. I pressed my cheek against the gray marble divider between the stalls and opened my jaw wide, screaming silently. A few feet away, people’s wives and mothers applied lipstick.
If you are a loving person, and lonely, and a teacher, it is easy — and not always wrong — to channel your feelings toward a remarkable, affectionate student. But to let that bond alter your perceptions of that student is a terrible — and in this case tragic — mistake. I had loved Laurel passionately, beyond reason. And if I had not, she would be alive.
Back at the table, Mr. Anderson was waiting for me to return. When I sat down, he picked up his fork and wearily began eating. He would go on, I saw, doing the right thing, the responsible thing, growing peaches, keeping his appointments, sleeping and waking in the farmhouse where his wife and his daughter had chattered and cooked and argued and made up; he would go on trying to live a life that no one would want.
“I think about Laurel every day,” I said. “Not just every day, but many times a day. You must think of her all the time.” You must think constantly about losing people. You must carry death not on your shoulder but in front of your eyes, like a lens. I wondered whether I would do that from now on: see every student, friend, student’s parent, and enemy through the magnifying, softening prism of loss. If I’d known, that day in my kitchen with the coffee and cookies, that it was to be my last conversation with Laurel, would I not have listened more carefully, made her laugh more, lingered in our hug?
Later, absently, politely, Mr. Anderson asked me, “Where was it that you went — on your trip?”
“Chicago,” I said. “To visit another women’s-studies department.” I didn’t say that I had been looking for another job, because suddenly I wasn’t anymore. The job in Chicago was not for me now, no matter whether they offered it to me or not. What mattered was the place I was in, the moment I was living through. I knew that I would stay in this town, at this college, and would get to know this man and other students, people who might one day give me a reason to get up in the morning.
“Let’s get dessert,” I told a surprised Mr. Anderson. “Something chocolate. Laurel would have liked that.”
He smiled for the first time that I had ever seen. “Hell,” he said, “let’s get brandy.”
“Yes,” I said, “let’s drink to your daughter.”
As I heard my words, I feared I’d said something terrible, ruined our brief camaraderie. But Mr. Anderson was gesturing for the waiter. “I think Laurel would approve,” he said. “She liked you a lot, you know.”
He went on talking, and I went on listening. I was looking at him through a lens.