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A Bad and Stupid GirlA Novel
By Jean McGarry
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2006 Jean McGarry
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHer roommate Esther was reading in bed while Siri unpacked her trunk. The girls were introduced by the housemother, Mrs. Preston. Each had a bed, a dresser with attached mirror, a desk and a bookcase. The linen service was optional. Esther's mother had supplied matching plaid bedspreads and a rag rug. She expected Siri's mother to offer to pay for the extra bedspread, but Sybele thought her daughter should choose her own bed covering and planned to supply one in white chenille once she had the dimensions. When the Sorensons arrived at St. Mary's, Esther's mother had already made both beds and dolled up the room with the new rug and cotton-lace runners.
Siri knew her roommate's mother had been insulted by Sybele. (Siri had been calling her mother "Sybele" for over a year, but now she'd work it into conversations.) After the introductions, Sybele paced out the room, opened the window, then started to strip her daughter's bed of the hideous spread. Esther said nothing, but Siri told her mother not to touch anything, to leave it alone! Mr. Sorenson arrived in the nick of time. When he saw his wife with the bedspread bunched in her hands and that look on her face, he acted. He suggested that they go directly to the freshman reception, "out ofharm's way," as he put it later.
Dad was fresh from the bursar's office, settling the fall-semester account. Esther was an in-state student and was boarding at St. Mary's on a math stipend. The Ferrys had no money-Siri knew this from the summer letters, but two seconds in the freshly painted room-Siri shut the window before even shaking hands-confirmed it, and it wasn't just the cheap, mill-outlet spreads with their metallic sheen; it wasn't just the mothball smell of ancient woolens; it wasn't the permanent waves that had conked Esther's and her mother's mousy heads; it wasn't even just the fact that mother, father and daughter had removed their shoes and were standing on the rag rug in their stocking feet. It wasn't any of it, but all of it. Siri already had them zeroed out, but that only made it harder for Sybele whose "faces" and "eyes," expressively aimed at her daughter, were ignored. Thankfully, Sybele, an alumna of St. Mary's, was eager to see what familiar face, with a daughter in tow, would turn up at the freshman reception. She was willing to be hauled off. Dad hadn't yet met the Ferrys, and he shook hands with the father, but the roommates needed get-acquainted time before the mothers posed too much of an obstacle.
Esther was reading Time, but she could still see the things-mostly underwear-the blond roommate was unwrapping from their tissue folds. Was she going to keep the trunk in their room? was what she said to this strange person. Siri said she didn't know. It could be used as a table, said Esther, if they decided to flout the rules about having a hotplate and provisions. With that, the magazine fell on her chest and she folded her hands on it.
Siri Sorenson had already told the roommate, Esther Ferry, that she needed a lot of sleep and liked a dark room at night. Esther Ferry wrote back that she would do most of her studying in the library. She was an early riser and never missed breakfast. She planned to try out for freshman field hockey to avoid gym class. Siri didn't plan to do either. She had a letter from her doctor making the most of a slight heart murmur. She could not study more than an hour at a time and no all-nighters or football weekends, two-in-a-row. Esther was going to be a college professor and mathematician. The roommate from New Federal wrote back that she hadn't even chosen a major. College was her parents' idea, but she was looking forward to getting away from home.
Esther and Siri walked to the student union together, but separated at the door. Siri's mother had met friends and plans were being made for dinner in Boston with the daughters. Esther's parents were holding their plates of cafeteria food. They had saved a chair between them for their daughter, and now the college president would give her address. No, the nun said, don't stand. Stay where you are or come up and get some supper and punch. She would only take ten minutes of their time to welcome them to SMC and give them a bird's-eye view of the academic year and the programs planned for parents to keep them in touch with their freshmen girls, away from home for the first time.
Siri Sorenson felt that things were moving very slowly. If this was college, then it was one more thing in life not worth your full attention. After the dinner in Boston, she'd urged Sybele and "Don"-this was a first-to drive home early and skip Mass and the communion breakfast. When they dropped her off that night with a box of chocolates and cookies from an ice-cream shop in Cambridge, Sybele in tears, Siri walked in the dorm doorway and out again, watching the brake lights of her father's car as it took the curves of the tree-lined driveway. She had promised Christo a call. He was staying with Teddy, although the housekeeper would be there all day Sunday. She wouldn't bother calling-the student union, where the phone booths were private, might be closed for the night. Christo would want to hear that she missed him and she loved him, but she'd already said that dozens of times and it made no difference. They both knew that Siri was moving out of his orbit. Whether she'd be back was up to her.
Upstairs, beyond the parade of toothbrushes and bathrobes, past a card game in the smoker, and the proctor (a senior-they'd been told-with a vocation) exiting her room for bed-check, Siri found Esther digging into the trunk, plunging her hand into the deepest section, under the false floor, which Siri herself had packed before her mother began laying in sweaters, coats and suits. All those years spent defying the eyes and hands of an eager mother and snooping brother had prepared Siri for this and more. She shut the door and walked downstairs, paying a visit to the third-floor lounge (shared by college and convent), furnished with porch furniture and reading lamps. Only the 40-watt chandeliers were lit and the deep room was belted in alluring shadows. Siri found a wide couch with its back against the French doors. Old magazines-knitting, decorating, Messenger of the Blind and Commonweal-were scattered on the glass-topped table and a floor ashtray was filled with butts, although the lounge was not a smoker.
Upon her return, she found the dorm corridor deserted and the proctor opening and shutting doors. Her own room was empty; the trunk was closed, covered by a lace runner from one of the dressers. Two bed pillows sleeved in the repulsive, shiny fabric were on top of that. The trunk had been dragged to a spot under the double window, softening the square symmetry of the room. (Next day Siri planned to speak to the dean of students and request a single.)
When Esther returned with a glass containing her toothbrush and -paste, a hand towel and cake of Ivory, she dumped these items on her bedspread and opened the bottom drawer of the roommate's dresser to show where she had put the wool sweaters. Then she moved the sweaters to show the flagon of Joy, filched from Siri's mother's bathroom, the package of Trojan safeties, the baby pictures, and-tucked in a shoebox-the Cherry Herring, Chartreuse, white rum and champagne.
Siri laughed at the neatness, but still planned to visit the dean. Even if Esther wanted to be friends, and could manage it, Siri needed privacy. This was her decision, made early in the summer before the first roommate letter had arrived. Before getting into bed-and after the proctor had knocked twice and flipped their light on and off-Esther, whose father had supplied the room with a carton of nickle Cokes, fixed two rum-colas in the toothpaste glasses. Siri took an aspirin with hers.
The talk that night was of food, boys, parents' ages and habits and favorite books. Siri didn't have a favorite, but offered The Mill on the Floss, which was on the senior-year reading list. Esther had read everything by George Eliot. "Who's George Eliot?" Siri asked, and "You're kidding," Esther replied, in a tone that gave Siri the needed clue. "Is the window open?" she said. "I'm freezing." Esther jumped up to check. No, but did she need an extra blanket? Yes, so a mothball-scented, scratchy cover, heavy as a door, fell on Siri's summer quilt. At first she felt smothered, but the weight and even the penetrating camphor were a refreshment in the night, when Siri felt incarcerated with a convent full of nuns just one floor down and beyond the wall. Mr. Sorenson was a non-Catholic and Siri was becoming one. She was more her father's daughter than her mother's, and that night she dreamed that she and Dad were married and living on a ship outside of China. The Chinese were smoking clove cigarettes until she kicked off the horse blanket and could breathe freely. "I hate it here," she told Esther Ferry when she woke up in the dark room and saw the roommate reading with a flashlight. "What time is it?"
At Mass and the endless communion breakfast, Siri was the only freshman to have shed the parents. Sybele's old friends, Martha and Judy, made room at their table, but Siri stayed with the Ferrys. Mrs. Ferry had on the same dress as yesterday and was still talking about the bedspreads, buying them "special" at a store where she didn't have a charge account and had to open one, so the girls had better make sure they liked them. They were not cheap. Then she asked if Siri planned to use the linen service or would she wash her own sheets, as Estie planned to do. This was not the kind of question Siri felt obliged to answer: it was nosy, it was none of this strange woman's business, it was boring and it didn't matter. Yes, she was enrolled in the weekly laundry service, but so what? She'd never made a bed in her life and didn't intend to start now, she'd already told Esther, who said: well, what about morning inspection? This question, too, had gone unanswered.
Mrs. Ferry talked on and without waiting for an answer or, just as often, answered her own questions, amplifying what Esther had already told her with hunches. Mr. Ferry said nothing. Esther listened carefully to all the deans and even to the alumnae who spoke after the eggy plates were cleared and fingerbowls supplied with squares of rich coffeecake. Later that day when the Ferrys had left, taking the ironing board and iron and lacy curtains and stepstool (clothespins and spray starch the girls didn't need or had no room to store), Esther told Siri what she had been listening for. In their opening remarks, "officials" tell you things they'll never say again, and if you don't take them in, you'll waste time-years maybe, your whole time here-puzzling out how things work. There's something they want you to know; it might not sound important but it is. Sometimes, Esther said, I write down what they say word for word.
On the basis of this and the restlessness that went with it, Siri decided not to visit the dean of students that Sunday. Her mother called on the floor telephone. Teddy wanted to talk, and so did Christo, who was still hanging around. Siri felt that she had important things to tell them if they only asked the right questions, but as she'd never before offered them anything, they didn't think to ask. And this obtuseness irritated her. Dad was on the extension and Mom on the kitchen phone. She could hear Teddy in the background. "I've got to go," she said. "Why? What do you have to do?" said Sybele. "Study." "You haven't had classes yet," Dad said. "Placement tests," Siri said. "Placement in what?" Sybele asked. "In everything," Siri said. "Oh. Teddy wants to speak to you. And Christo."
"Speak up," she said into the receiver. "Girly girl," Teddy said.
"Is that all you have to say to me?"
"Hi, Siri Sue," Christo said.
"I've got to go now."
"Bye bye," said Teddy, then Christo had the phone to himself.
"Why are you still over there?" Siri asked him.
"I was babysitting Teddy."
"But why are you still there now?"
"I don't know yet. I just got here."
"Are you coming home next weekend?"
"I don't know. I haven't even had my first class yet. Why don't you go home now?"
"I have nothing to say to you. Put Christo back on."
But when nothing happened, just childish breathing on the other end, Siri hung up. You could not use this phone to dial out-not that she wanted to talk to any of them ever again.
After one day of classes, Esther wanted to show Siri the pages she'd filled with opening remarks in math, chemistry, History of the World and theology. Siri was also enrolled in History of the World, and had heard Dr. What's his name's lecture herself. She remembered what Esther had said about the communion-breakfast speeches and had penciled in what she thought the history guy was driving at in his hour lecture: what is history? Siri had copied the outline from the board with its four headings: West, East, Ancient, Modern, with points under each, using numerals, numbers and letters. These were the best notes-and the clearest-she'd ever taken and she was proud to show them off. Just having Esther in the class, sitting in the front row near the teacher's desk, made it seem more interesting. Maybe Siri would major in history. It was all coming so easily for the first time. In the other classes: French and composition, sociology and Classics of Modern Literature, it was like high school: tedium, a blur of hard vocabulary words, demands and threats, all delivered in a brusque, mocking, bored and stilted-or otherwise hateful-tone. It was worse than high school because they (two men, one woman and one nun) talked faster with no stories or sidetracks, illustrations, jokes or personal remarks. Siri concentrated on her jewelry-a gold bangle and the signet ring from Albertus Magnus Prep. Tiny scratches spoiled the mirrory sheen of the bracelet. The delicate safety chain was already snapped and dangled, but it was eighteen-carat gold. Hollow. The ring was initialed and dated and Siri had it off and on, pushed onto the left and then the right hand. Her brother had wanted to buy her a graduation ring, but he had been prevented and it was too bad because two rings would balance two hands and set off the soft, pale fingers. Her mother said that he'd picked out an opal by himself-not anyone's favorite, but nicer than the black pearl, which was back in Christo's box. She'd get it from him when she went home, because she'd already promised it to Esther, the first time she'd offered anything of her own to anyone. "I'm not giving it to you, but you can wear it."
"I'll try to remember that," Esther had said, and Siri heard in it the mocking note that should give the clue, but this time didn't.
"So, show me," she said to Esther, who had a different-colored notebook for each subject. "No, let me show you first," she added. All her notes were in a ring binder-actually, there weren't any notes in the sections marked "Sociol," "Classics of," "Fr," "Compos."
She showed Esther the outline, "What Is History," and said, "You were in this class. I saw you up front."
Esther looked at the outline. "Oh," she said, "let me show you mine."
In Esther's blue notebook was:
"Arthur Donald Whitman (Harv. Ph.D., fourth year)
"European Intellectual History/Early Modern Europe/ Iberian Peninsula.
"Don't write. Listen. Don't comprehend. Read. At the end of every week, review your notes. Condense them. Abundance first, compression second. Boil everything down again before the midterm and final. If you organize too early, you'll lose the significant detail. Put it off too long and no organizational plan will contain it.
"Study is mental conditioning. Your minds are empty but tenacious; more avid and absorptive than they'll ever be again."
Siri read and of course once she did, she remembered, but a wave of irritation flushed her cheeks. This was exactly the kind of thing she'd come to campus to avoid-lectures and scoldings and worst of all, the sickening sense that everything there was couldn't be seen and known in a glance. If there was more than met the eye, she didn't want to know about it. Life could be spoiled by this vague but threatening fringe which could seem like a world in itself. Esther wasn't afraid of the fringe: she was on the lookout for it. Siri wanted to say how ugly Esther's permanent was and how it made her mousy hair look like a bird's nest and how you could still smell the ammonia, especially when it was wet from the shower. Hair was something you could learn to manage if you were willing, and she and Sybele were: to put the time into it, to be patient and willing to sleep with pins and brush rollers pricking your scalp, or your ears burned by falling asleep with the dryer on. You could be electrocuted, strangle, suffocate and bleed to death, but when you woke up and unwound the hair, there was at least a day and a half of perfect results.
Excerpted from A Bad and Stupid Girl by Jean McGarry Copyright © 2006 by Jean McGarry. Excerpted by permission.
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