VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO
A tale of coming of age and betrayal, by Curtis Sittenfeld.
I’D SEEN RAE SULLIVAN
around campus, but it wasn’t until early February of our freshman year that I decided I wanted to be like her. This realisation happened at Dartmouth’s post office, on a Tuesday morning, when I was in line behind her; I was there to buy stamps and she was sending a package. It was a little after 9am, a quiet hour, and as the only person working helped the students in front of us, I had plenty of time to scrutinise the package in Rae’s arms: a cardboard box addressed to a person named Noah Bishop.
Though the rest of Noah Bishop’s address was obscured by the angle at which Rae was holding the box, I could see that her handwriting was jagged in a cool way — it was unfeminine — and she’d decorated the borders of the box with patterns reminiscent of an Indian tapestry and the rest of it with erratic hearts drawn in black and maroon Sharpie. The hearts seemed to me unabashedly feminine; also, of course, they implied that Rae, whose name I hadn’t known until reading the return address in the box’s corner, was sending the package to her boyfriend for Valentine’s Day. At that time, the thing I most wished for was a boyfriend. I’d been aiming, unsuccessfully, for a Dartmouth boyfriend, but it seemed even more romantic to have one somewhere else — it implied yearning and passionate reunions. I was 19 and a virgin, and hadn’t so much as kissed anyone since arriving on campus five months before.
Rae was a little taller than I was, wearing corduroy pants, Birkenstock clogs, and a North Face coat that, when she turned after paying, fell open in such a way that it revealed a grey hooded sweatshirt with the word Exeter across it in maroon. I couldn’t actually see all the letters of Exeter, but I’d been at Dartmouth long enough to recognise the name of a fancy boarding school, even if I was from Des Moines. Over her wavy brown hair, Rae wore a black skullcap.
If you went feature by feature, I don’t think anyone would have said she and I particularly resembled each other, but there was something recognisable about her to me, some similarity. Our builds were about the same, our hair the same length, our clothes comparable in their implication of not exactly making an effort, though this was 1994, when almost everyone was making less of an effort. But Rae’s way of not making an effort fashion-wise was, like her
handwriting, far cooler than mine; mine stemmed more from confusion than indifference and resulted in a wardrobe of unironic colourful sweaters and bleached jeans that were loose but tapered.
I didn’t speak to Rae in the post office. But that night, after I took off my sweater — it was a cotton crewneck with alternating squares of turquoise, orange and black — I never put it back on. I resolved that in the future, I’d wear only solids.
In the autumn term of the following year, Rae and I ended up in the same English seminar. I knew from having looked her up in the freshman book — a forest-green paperback booklet filled with black-and-white head shots, with full names and home addresses listed underneath — that she was my year and was from Manchester, New Hampshire. When all of us in the seminar went around the room and introduced ourselves, she said she was an English major. I was pre-med, referred to at Dartmouth as pre-health. Although things still weren’t great for me socially, I liked my classes, both the sciences and the humanities, and my grades were good. Partly because I’d been a diligent student in high school and my work habits were ingrained and partly because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, I studied a lot.
As a freshman, I’d been assigned a single room, which was unusual but not unheard of. For me, it had been disastrous. In the new setting of college, I didn’t know how to integrate myself with other people. I had spent a tremendous amount of high school, even while I was studying, thinking about how badly I wanted to go to Dartmouth and about the boyfriends I’d have there. I hadn’t realised how much time I’d devoted to my imaginary, longed-for life at Dartmouth until I arrived at Dartmouth and found that by achieving my goal I had lost my primary means of entertaining myself and feeling optimistic. My father, who was a rheumatologist, had himself graduated from Dartmouth in the early ’70s, and my family had driven from Iowa to attend his tenth reunion when I was eight, whereupon I had developed a decade-long fixation with the school that was almost romantic in its intensity.
When I started college, my father had been the one to accompany me to campus — this time we flew, changing planes in Chicago — and prior to classes, I’d attended a freshman orientation camping trip in the White Mountains. The night after the trip ended, several girls on my hall assembled by the stairwell to walk to a fraternity party; it was a minor triumph that I’d managed to attach myself to this group. As we descended the steps, the girl in front, a very pretty blonde tennis player from Washington, D.C., named Annabel, called over her shoulder, “I heard they call this the GFU party.” She paused, then added merrily, “Short for Get Fucked Up.”
There were eight or nine girls in the group, and I was bringing up the rear. When I froze, I’m sure no-one noticed. I stood there while they descended another flight, and then I returned to my room and lay on my bed and listened to a Garth Brooks CD (my father and I had attended two of his concerts together) and eventually pulled out the MCAT study guide I sometimes looked at before bed; it was a 500 page paperback, and something about it was very comforting to me. The girls did, apparently, notice my absence eventually, because the next day one of them said, “Where did you go last night? We all were wondering!” I said I’d felt sick, which in a way I had. For my entire freshman year, I didn’t set foot in a fraternity house or, for that matter, a sorority house.
Over the summer, in Des Moines, I spent mornings babysitting for a family with two little boys and afternoons volunteering at the hospital where my father worked. On my bedside table I kept a list of concrete things I could do to improve my life at Dartmouth, which included:
- Once a week if someone seems nice and approachable ask if they want to go out for pizza at EBA’S - At least say hi to but try to also smile at people I pass - Join the debate team? Back on campus, I lived in a single again, and as I pulled sheets over the twin mattress for the first time, I wondered, but not optimistically, if this was the bed where I’d lose my virginity.
As it happened, I didn’t join the debate team, and I didn’t execute my EBA’S pizza initiative because, after the very first English seminar, I was leaving the classroom in Sanborn House when a female voice behind me said, “What a douchebag.” There was a boy walking not with but parallel to me, about five feet away, and we made confused eye contact, unsure if the comment was addressed to either or both of us.
When I looked over my shoulder, I saw that the speaker was Rae Sullivan. In a disgruntled but chummy tone, as if we’d previously had many similar conversations, she added, “I heard he was full of himself, but his arrogance exceeded my wildest expectations.” She was referring, I assumed, to the seminar instructor. Although it was a literature class, he had started by telling us he was a poet and spent 15 minutes describing his work. He’d called it language poetry, a term I had never heard. But I hadn’t been bothered by the personal digression; I’d found it impressive.
“I read one of his poems, and it’s literally about having anal sex with his wife,” Rae was saying. “And I’ve seen her, and she’s a total cow.”
I said, “I’m taking the class to fulfil the English requirement.” This was as close as I could get to disparaging a professor.
The boy, who had introduced himself in class as Isaac, said, “I found the poems in his first book derivative of Ashbery.”
Rae looked between Isaac and me, intensely, for a few seconds, as if making a decision, then said, “Do you guys want to go smoke a joint?”
After Rae and Isaac and I became best friends, it occurred to me only occasionally to wonder whom we were replacing. Who had been Rae’s previous best friends? I somehow knew that her freshman roommate had been a girl named Sally Alexander, but she and Sally didn’t seem to hang out anymore. Much like my freshman-year neighbour Annabel, she of the GFU party, Sally was blonde and very pretty; on the Dartmouth campus, there was a disproportionate number of blonde and very pretty girls, socially adept girls, sometimes gracefully anorexic or anorexic-ish girls. I’d observed several who ate no fat, ever; for breakfast, they had a bagel,
“AFTER RAE AND ISAAC AND I BECAME BEST FRIENDS, IT OCCURRED TO ME TO WONDER WHOM WE WERE REPLACING”
for lunch, a bagel and salad without dressing, and for dinner a bagel, salad without dressing, and frozen yogurt. Not that I witnessed it, but they apparently drank a lot of beer; as a freshman, I had found the term “boot and rally” so anthropologically interesting that I’d shared it with my parents, thereby disturbing my mother. I had a strong sense that, among these poised, preppy, winsomely eating-disordered girls, I couldn’t compete for male attention; faced with the enticements of such creatures, what boy would want my dowdy Iowan virginity?
Like me, Rae avoided fraternity parties, which at Dartmouth in 1994 meant avoiding parties. Unexpectedly, she too had a single — hers was in Allen House — and in the evening, after dinner, she liked to sit on her bed, roll and smoke a joint, and watch a VHS tape of Edward Scissorhands on her TV. I’d usually leave just before the part of the movie when the housewife tried to seduce Edward, because it stressed me out on behalf of both Edward and the housewife. We were often joined by Isaac, who had grown up in Atlanta and whom I intuitively understood to be gay and closeted. He was short, slim, black haired and excellent at participating in long, analytical discussions of Rae’s two favourite topics, which were her relationship with her boyfriend and people on the Dartmouth campus she hated. In retrospect, I realise that I learned a lot from Isaac about the art of conversation — asking specific follow-up questions, offering nonsycophantic compliments (sycophantic never seemed sincere), and showing patience in the face of repetitive subject matter. Unlike me, Isaac did share Rae’s joints; I’d tried a few times, felt like possibly I was smoking wrong and definitely I was reaping no clear benefit, worried about the short- and long-term impacts on my memory, and declined from that point on, which neither of them seemed to mind.
One surprising discovery I made in the first week of my friendship with Rae was that her boyfriend — Noah Bishop, recipient of the Valentine’s Day care package — was younger than she was. He was a junior at Exeter, which meant that she had begun dating him when she was a boarding school senior and he was a freshman. Although Rae revealed this fact without fanfare or embarrassment, I found it so jarring that that night, when Isaac and I left her room at the same time, I said outside her dorm, “Do you think it’s weird that she’s three years older than Noah?”
“Obviously, the norms of high school imply yes,” Isaac said. “But it wouldn’t be weird if their genders were reversed. And it wouldn’t be that weird if they were a married couple, and she was 53 and he was 50.”
I took this in as we walked. Isaac was so much more articulate than I was that I might have found him intimidating, if not for the fact that he was nice; though he’d make damning observations about people, he seemed to be simply stating facts rather than relishing their weaknesses. I said, “Did you go to public or private school?” “Public.” “Me too,” I said. “And I picture boarding schools being very, like...” I couldn’t find the word. “Conformist?” he asked. “Yeah. Which would have made them going out even weirder.” We kept walking — it was getting dark, and I felt the particular longing of an Ivy League campus at dusk and wished I were walking with a boyfriend of my own instead of with Isaac — and I added, “Although Noah is really cute.” Indeed, in the photographs Rae had shown us, Noah was almost unbearably handsome, in exactly the way I wanted him to be: curly brown hair and full lips and a tiny silver hoop in his left ear. Apparently his family lived in a huge house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, his parents disliked Rae, and he played ice hockey and the guitar. And he had lost his virginity to Rae, though she had lost hers to the son of a friend of her mum’s.
If I was offering Isaac an opportunity to formally reveal his gayness, he declined it. He laughed and said, “I bet Noah himself agrees with you.”
As the weeks passed, Rae became increasingly concerned that Noah was hooking up with a girl in his class whose name I secretly loved: Clementine Meriwether. In mid-october, Rae decided to pay Noah a visit, which would entail taking the hour-and-a-half bus ride from Hanover to Manchester, then borrowing her mother’s car to make the 45-minute drive to Exeter. She invited both Isaac and me to go with her and stay at her mother’s house for the weekend; Isaac said he couldn’t, but I accepted.
The night before we left, Rae had cramps and asked if I’d pick up dinner for her. As I was leaving the dining hall, carrying a tray with two plates of steaming lasagna and two goblets of vanilla pudding, I pushed open the door to the outside with my back and when I turned around, I was face-to-face with Rae’s freshman roommate, Sally Alexander. Sally, who was accompanied by another girl, glanced at the tray and said, in a voice that was more friendly than snotty, though the sentiment seemed snotty, “You’re hungry!” “It’s not just for me,” I said. “It’s for Rae, too.” Sally’s eyes narrowed. “Are you friends with her?” “Yeah,” I said, and though I felt a swelling of pride, it was short-lived. “You don’t find her annoying?” Sally said. Taken aback, I simply said, “No.” Sally shrugged. “She’s so self-centred, but I think it’s because she’s an only child.”
Rae’s mother’s boyfriend picked us up at the bus station in Manchester, after Rae had placed three calls to her mother on a pay phone, and he was 50 minutes late and seemed irritated by our
arrival. At her mother’s house, which was one storey, very small, and brown shingled, he let us off without coming in, then drove on to the office building where he apparently worked nights on the janitorial staff. Rae’s mother was a private-duty nurse and wasn’t yet finished with her shift. When she did come home, a little after six, wearing pale pink scrubs, she hugged Rae, then hugged me too, and said how beautiful my eyes were (I’m brown-eyed, and this was a compliment I had never received). She added that she could tell I was an old soul, then asked where I was from and how I liked Dartmouth. She had a thick New Hampshire accent, and both she and the house smelled like cigarette smoke, though the house was generally clean and tidy. We were in Rae’s mother’s presence for no more than 10 minutes before Rae asked her for the car keys.
With an expression of good-natured disappointment, Rae’s mother said, “She can’t stay away from that boy, can she?” She made me miss my own parents, and it occurred to me to stay there while Rae went to see Noah. I was hungry, and I envisioned eating, say, chicken pot pie with Rae’s mother, then perhaps watching Family Matters or Unsolved Mysteries together before going to bed at 10pm. But this would be a redux of GFU night, which had set me back God only knew how many months. Thus, reluctantly, I joined Rae in her mother’s Honda Civic.
The car was a manual, and I could feel how my earlier self would have been impressed by Rae’s casual ability to drive it, seeing her possession of a skill I lacked as in keeping with her general aura of coolness. But there was more and more evidence — starting with the discovery that she was dating someone younger, then reinforced by Sally’s comments outside the dining hall — that I’d invented my original idea of Rae, that really, the only person who perceived Rae as cool at all was me. And she hadn’t pretended; I had misconstrued. I also, of course, hadn’t understood until seeing her mother’s house that Rae didn’t come from a rich family. Her boarding-school degree and her New Englandishly hippie clothes had confused me, because I was easily confused. I realised that, presumably, by Rae’s standards if not by my own, I came from a rich family; after all, I had taken out no college loans and was receiving no financial assistance. The decor of my parents’ house in Des Moines wasn’t that different from the decor of Rae’s mother’s house — wall-to-wall carpet, faded sofas and chairs, shiny walnut tables — but my parents’ house was much bigger.
Rae slipped a cassette into the dashboard tape deck before backing out of the driveway, and the Indigo Girls’ song “Joking” erupted into the car; when it ended, she said, “Can you rewind it?” At her request, I did this so many times as we drove east on 101 that I soon knew precisely how long to hold down the button in order to get back to the song’s start. “Joking” was on an album I’d heard in Rae’s room, and though I wasn’t certain what made this song a personal anthem for her — it started with intense guitar strumming — I understood the impulse behind it, the craving.
We’d been driving for 20 minutes when Rae slapped her right hand against the steering wheel and said, “Fuck!” I glanced across the front seat. “I forgot the pot,” Rae said. “And Noah reminded me, like, three times.”
I did not feel optimistic about Rae’s reunion with Noah, or about my own ability to comfort her if the reunion was unsuccessful. “Do you want to turn back?”
She thought for a few seconds, then said, “There’s not time. He has choir practice at eight.” Hot, pot-smoking Noah Bishop was in the choir? I had been intrigued by the prospect of visiting an elite boarding school, but I couldn’t see much as we arrived under darkness at what seemed to be the back side of a vast concrete gym. A boy in a down vest, a plaid flannel shirt, khaki pants and sneakers was standing with his back to the gym, under a light, and Rae unrolled her window and wolf-whistled at him. “Do you have it?” he asked. “Fuck you,” she said out the window. “That’s not how you greet me.”
She parked in an otherwise empty lot, and we both climbed from the car. Gratifyingly, Noah Bishop was even handsomer than he looked in photographs. She approached him, placed both hands on his shoulders, and kissed him on the mouth. When she pulled away, she said, “That’s how you greet me.” He gestured toward me. “Who’s that?” “My friend Dana,” Rae said. Noah nodded once and said, “Yo, my friend Dana.” I knew that when Noah ejaculated, he made a whimpering noise, like a baby; that when Rae gave him hand jobs, he liked her to use Jergens lotion; that the first woman he’d ever masturbated to had been Kelly Lebrock, after he saw the movie Weird Science; and that his father had been investigated by the SEC and found innocent of wrongdoing, though Noah himself suspected that his father was guilty. I also knew that sometimes Rae knelt on the floor of her Dartmouth dorm room, clasped her hands together, and, addressing the phone on her desk, said, “Call me, Noah. Just please fucking call me right now.” “Hi,” I said. “Did you get the key?” Rae asked Noah, and he said, “Yeah. Did you get the weed?” “There were complications,” she said. I cleared my throat. “Is town that way? Maybe I’ll go eat dinner. I should be back by, what, 8, Rae? Or 8:15?” “Sure,” she said, and I could tell she was barely paying attention. Even though I made a couple of wrong turns, I reached the town of Exeter within 15 minutes and kept walking until I found a place where I could buy a meatball sub and a Diet Coke. A handful of kids who looked like students came in, and I reminded myself that the unease I felt about eating alone at Dartmouth was irrelevant here. When I finished, I walked along Water Street, not entirely sure what to do. I had no idea, of course, that of all the feelings of my youth that would pass, it was this one, of an abundance of time so great as to routinely be unfillable, that would vanish with the least ceremony.
“THERE WAS MORE AND MORE EVIDENCE THAT I’D INVENTED MY ORIGINAL IDEA OF RAE… SHE HADN’T PRETENDED; I’D MISCONSTRUED”
The stores, most of which were closed, were brick, with awnings or quaint wooden signs outside. I entered a pharmacy. When I found myself in the “family planning” aisle, I decided, just as an experiment, to buy a pack of condoms. Would I plausibly seem to the cashier like a person who was having sex? The wide array — lubricated and ribbed and ultra-thin — bewildered me, so I went with what was cheapest. I also picked up a bag of Twizzlers and some lip balm, for camouflage. My heart was beating quickly as I waited to pay, but when it was my turn, the cashier seemed as uninterested in me as Noah had. By then, it was almost 8pm, so I walked back to the gym swinging the plastic bag with my purchases in it. At first, I thought my timing was perfect, because as I approached the gym, Rae was pulling the Honda out of its parking space. Then I realised she was pulling out alarmingly quickly; her tyres squealed in a way I had rarely heard in real life. When the front of the car was pointed toward the road, she revved the gas and almost ran me over as she sped past. “Rae!” I yelled. “Rae!”
But the car didn’t stop, and its taillights had soon disappeared. “I guess you’re screwed,” someone said, and I turned and saw that Noah stood about 10 metres away, smirking. I walked toward him. “Where’s she going?” He shrugged. “Is she coming back?” “Hard to say.” “Did she say she was going to find me?” He shook his head. “Sorry.” “Did you guys have a fight?” This was a nosier question than I’d have asked under normal circumstances, especially of a goodlooking guy, but he was still in high school. Plus, Rae was or had been his girlfriend, and she wasn’t prettier than I was. And then I understood, with a weird revelatory kind of internal kick, what had drawn me to Rae in the post office. Since arriving at Dartmouth, I’d felt my own lack of prettiness as a humming, low-level failure. I wasn’t singularly unattractive, my existence wasn’t a crime. But I also wasn’t, in an environment of youth and affluence, fulfilling my part of the social contract — the thing it mattered the most if I was, I wasn’t. And yet Rae wasn’t really fulfilling it, either; Rae wasn’t beautiful or blonde or thin or charming, and she didn’t seem apologetic. Even having lost some of my original respect for her, I still envied her confidence.
Noah said, “She’s pissed because I didn’t want to fuck her.” I blinked, then said, “Why not?” Did I think there was useful information to be gleaned here, sexual or romantic lessons, or was I already scheming? Looking back, I’m still not sure. Shrugging again, he said, “She’s on the rag.” He grinned as he added, “I told her she could still blow me.”
I hesitated, and my heart abruptly began to pound at double or triple time. But I spoke slowly. I said, “I’m not on the rag.” Although this wasn’t a locution I generally used, there was much about the moment that was out of character. If I’d been hoping that some transporting lust would seize both of us, I would have been disappointed. The expression on Noah’s face was a surprised and faintly amused sort of curiosity, as if he was wondering if I’d farted. He raised his eyebrows and said, “Yeah?” We were, at that point, only about a metre apart. “Yeah,” I said. I didn’t know what to do next, and I thought of turning and sprinting away. But I again recalled the GFU night, my failure of nerve. Presumably, I needed to touch him, but how? The two times in Des Moines when I’d kissed boys, they’d both initiated it. The most logical place to make contact with Noah seemed to be the crotch of his pants, but that was too aggressive even for the person I was pretending to be. And kissing him seemed logistically complicated — he was well over six feet, significantly taller than I was, and I wondered how Rae had made it look easy.
From somewhere far away, I heard bells ringing — the eight o’clock bells, followed by the distant, cheerful-sounding, intermittent shouts and cries of teenagers. Instead of having sex with me, was Noah about to depart for choir practice? With both my arms, I reached for his right hand, brought it to my chest, and held it against my left breast, on top of my navy blue sweater. This, apparently, was all I needed to do. There were a few seconds when I thought he was pulling his hand away, which he was, but before my humiliation could be fully activated, he slid the hand back under my sweater and T-shirt, over my bra, and before long he’d slipped his thumb beneath the bra. Then he did kiss me. In spite of his handsomeness, I remained completely unaroused. My lack of arousal did not, however, prevent me from saying, after a minute or two, “Is there somewhere we can go?”
He grabbed my hand and led me inside an unlocked door of the gym and through a corridor. Outside another door, this one maroon, he looked in either direction down the hall before pulling a key from his pocket. The room was windowless and contained soccer balls in vast net bags, bats, stacks of orange traffic cones and other kinds of athletic equipment. There wasn’t much open space on the polished concrete floor, but there was enough for a girl who was five foot four to lie down and for a boy who was a foot taller to lie on top of her. We used one of the condoms I’d just bought at the pharmacy — had any condom purchased outside the heat of passion ever been used so efficiently? — and the whole encounter lasted less than 10 minutes, maybe closer to five. None of it was physically enjoyable for me, except when he held my hand to lead me inside the gym; that had been the kind of thing I’d pictured a boyfriend doing. About 30 seconds after coming (as advertised, he did so with a whimper), he said, “I need to go to choir practice,” and he rose up off me. We’d both kept our shirts on and hadn’t entirely removed our pants. We refastened them, and I smoothed my hair. He opened the door carefully, looked into the hallway, then motioned for me to follow him. Outside the door, he locked it, glanced at me, smirked, and said, “See you around.” Then he headed in one direction and, retracing our route in from the parking lot, I headed in the other.
After college, I was a research assistant in a lab in Boston for two years before attending medical school at Johns Hopkins. I matched to my first-choice residency, which was at the University of Iowa, and I was a year into it when I received a phone call from Isaac.
“IF I’D BEEN HOPING THAT SOME TRANSPORTING LUST WOULD SEIZE BOTH OF US, I WOULD HAVE BEEN DISAPPOINTED”
I later learned that he had called information in Des Moines to get my parents’ phone number, then asked my mother for my number. He was driving cross-country because he was about to start an English PHD program at Berkeley and wanted to know if I’d like to have dinner when he passed through Iowa City the following week. I was working 24-hour shifts, so we met instead for breakfast, at a diner. From the minute I entered the restaurant and saw him sitting in the booth — when we made eye contact, he smiled, waved and stood – I understood that Isaac was not gay. My heart thudded as we hugged, though I felt more excited than nervous. I was by then almost 30, and I’d had a few boyfriends and a few additional sexual partners, but I’d never before been able to tell for certain that someone else was as happy to be in my presence as I was to be in his.
In medical school, I’d studied by relistening to first- and secondyear class lectures on tape, and I would speed up the lectures, making the professors sound like cartoon chipmunks, in order to get through them as fast as possible. In the diner, I wished I could increase the speed of my conversation with Isaac, not because I wanted to get it over with but because I wanted both of us to cram in the maximum amount of words before I started my shift, because I felt we had such an enormous amount to say to each other.
The great luck of my entire life is that 12 years have passed since Isaac and I had breakfast, and I still feel that way. We live outside Columbus, Ohio, where he is an English professor and I practise internal medicine at a clinic that serves uninsured immigrants. We have a daughter who is now 10 and a son who’s seven. When we can, we like to go for family walks after dinner in our suburban neighbourhood; often our children dart ahead of us, or discuss their own matters with each other, and when Isaac and I chat about our days, or the news, or movies we probably won’t end up seeing, I am filled with gratitude at the astonishing fact of being married to someone I enjoy talking to, someone with whom I can’t imagine ever running out of things to say.
Isaac claims that he always had a crush on me and that was the reason he hung out in Rae’s room, even though he never much liked her. When I told Isaac that I’d believed he was gay, he was amused and asked why, and when I tried to pinpoint it, the best I could come up with was that he’d used gel in his hair, he’d buttoned the top button of his shirts, and I hadn’t been uncomfortable around him. He was amused by all of this, too.
It would be easy for me to be horrified by who I was more than 20 years ago, how ignorant, but I don’t see what purpose it would serve. I’m relieved to have aged out of that visceral sense that my primary obligation is to be pretty, relieved to work at a job that allows me to feel useful. Did I used to think being pretty was my primary obligation because I was in some way delusional? Or was it that I’d absorbed the messages I was meant to absorb with the same diligence with which I studied? As the mother of a daughter, I hope she won’t judge herself as harshly as I judged myself, but her personality is so unlike mine — she is boisterous and outspoken — that I’m not inordinately concerned.
Isaac, as I didn’t know back in college, was also a virgin when I met him. It was in sophomore spring that he got together with his first girlfriend, which is to say he had sex after I did but, I trust, more thoroughly. Presumably, the campus of Dartmouth in the early ’90s — like college campuses in every decade, like towns and cities everywhere — was home to many other virgins, average-looking girls and boys and also grown-ups afraid that they were too ugly to be loved, convinced that this private shame was theirs alone.
I had thought that extracting myself from my friendship with Rae would be tricky, that she’d resist, but it wasn’t and she didn’t. That night at Exeter, I waited in the parking lot for more than an hour — because I was amazed by the implications of my non-virgin status and because I had Twizzlers to eat, I wasn’t bored — and finally the Honda Civic reappeared. When I climbed in, Rae expressed no contrition about abandoning me, and we listened many more times to the song “Joking”. I wondered if Noah would ever tell her what had happened, and if she’d confront, or even physically accost, me, but of course he had no more incentive to reveal anything than I did. I suspect that they weren’t in touch much longer. All sophomores at Dartmouth stayed on campus and took classes for the summer, and it was at some point in July or August that I realised it had been a long while since I’d laid eyes on Rae, even from a distance. The only conversation I remember having with Isaac at Dartmouth after my trip to Manchester was when I ran into him that summer outside Bakerberry Library and he confirmed that Rae had dropped out.
These days, Isaac and I almost never talk about Rae, though she crosses my mind with regularity; I’m far more troubled that she probably didn’t earn a degree from Dartmouth than that I had sex with her boyfriend. I’ve found no trace of her online, and in this void, I’ve created a biography: she works in public relations for a large and mildly nefarious corporation. She’s tough and powerful and makes a lot of money. She never wanted children and lives in a swanky apartment in a big city with her good-looking and (I can’t resist) slightly younger boyfriend. If you were to mention Isaac or me, she wouldn’t know who we were, but, upon consideration, she’d acknowledge that our names sounded vaguely familiar. E Taken from You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld ($29.99, Doubleday)