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I WAS A PROMISING CHILD. When I was seven, I spent an entire week hunkered down on the cranberry red carpeting in my father's study, building a scale model of the Temple of Athena at Paestum. I carved the columns out of Ivory soap with a paring knife and pushed red clay through my Play-Doh press to tile over the Styrofoam roof. I painted a frieze, which was cheating and ultimately unsatisfactory, since it was not authentically three-dimensional. My father wondered why not the Parthenon, but I wasn't interested in the obvious.
"Everyone knows the Parthenon, Dad," I said, in a superior tone, although, in fact, I knew no one other than he who was at all acquainted with the Greeks.
Three months after I'd finished my temple, my little brother, Warren, was parking his Hot Wheels in it.
When I was eight, I sewed two chamois I swiped from the garage into a little dress in the style of the Lakota Sioux. You'd think this would be less ambitious than the Temple of Athena, but the beadwork was extensive. Beads were very big then--my friends and I sat cross-legged on the driveway with little cups of color-coded plastic treasure near our knees and threaded them on elastic to give to one another as necklaces and bracelets. I had to cut apart five of the six chokers my very best friend, Letty, had given me to get enough beads just to finish the bodice of the dress.
My mother was less pleased with the Lakota costume than she'd been with the temple. Architecture, yes. Sewing, no. But at that point in my career, I didn't care what my mother or anyone else thought. I didn't care that the columns of my temple had bits of sticky string tied around them--to pump the gas, Warren explained--my pleasure was all in the making.
I could go on--I laid out the city of Ur in clay on the Ping-Pong table, rendered a map of Asia as experienced by Marco Polo, compiled a catalog of Scottish clans, and produced a page of medieval-looking illumination with hand-mixed inks--but I think my point is clear. I was precocious. I was enthusiastic, unswerving, creative. I had imagination. It took me only twenty years to realize that none of this mattered.
What you find out in your thirties is that clever children are a dime a dozen. It's what you do later that counts, and so far I had done nothing.
But I was going to change that, starting right now, this morning, Saturday, June 15. I'd set the alarm for four forty-five and was at my desk by five. The sky over Lower Manhattan was the gray of used wash water. I would shower around nine, I decided, to refresh myself after logging a decent morning's work. I had easy to hand two new and newly sharpened pencils--the soft number ones I liked--and a legal pad for notes. The cursor pulsed eagerly on the blank screen before me. I drew my feet under me and sat on my heels. I leaned forward, ready, nearly holding my breath. It seemed as though, with just a nudge, my novel would spin from my pent-up imagination in skeins of gorgeous, moving words.
"Elaine pushed her fingers through her long, dark hair in the pearly dawn," I typed--it was the first sentence that came into my head--and then rested a moment, reaching to tease from my own hair a snarl the cat had painstakingly worked into it during the night. Why "Elaine"? Should my main character have the name that came first into my head? Shouldn't the name suit the character the way "Daisy" suited Daisy Buchanan? With one of my pencils, I printed neatly on the legal pad--"Buy baby-naming book."
"Margaret?" My husband's voice came from the bedroom, muffled by down comforter and sleep.
"Ted, I'm working," I said, a touch of righteous indignation in my tone.
"Come back to bed," he murmured dreamily.
Fourteen hours before, I'd been an English teacher at Gordonhurst Academy, a private school on the Upper East Side. The administration had put on a little party in the Marshall Room to send off all of us who weren't coming back in the fall with Chinese chicken salad, a favorite cafeteria offering, and grape juice made adult by the addition of cranberry and seltzer. One by one, we were called to stand before the portrait of Fitzhugh Marshall to collect a handshake and a gift--Suzy Cargill, an art teacher, who was having a baby and had decided to stay home for a year; Valerie Finkelstein, who was trading biology classes for med school; John Kingsley, who was moving to St. Louis to be with his girlfriend; and Penny Burich, who had won the outstanding teacher award the year before and was going to Columbia for a doctorate to become an even better teacher than she already was.
"One of our colleagues from the English department is leaving us to write the great American novel," the headmaster announced.
I blushed and began to push my chair back.
"And I'm just hoping for a run-of-the-mill novel," I think I said, as I shook his hand, although, oh, yes, in some shameful corner of my ego, never to be admitted in public and to be tasted only with the tiniest, most fleeting lick in private, was a hard little lozenge of belief that this grandiose idea was true. Why not? I was an American, wasn't I? That I had not submitted for publication a single line since Cricket magazine passed on "The Misplaced Mitten" when I was twelve only meant that I had reservoirs of untapped talent.
My gift was a pair of slim books--one titled Character, the other Plot. I was touched by this gesture of support, although I knew I would use them only for a laugh. I had paged through that kind of thing often in bookstores, mostly to reaffirm that I would be a writer different from their intended audience. I aspired to be an artist, to blaze a fresh trail in prose, not to write the kind of paint-by-numbers potboiler such manuals encouraged. "You know," Neil McCloskey, my department head, said to me, quietly, kindly, as I held the books up for the teachers to admire, "you're always welcome back, if, you know, things don't work out."
I complained about this to Letty on the phone Saturday afternoon.
"But that's nice," she said. "He values you."
"It isn't nice--he assumes I'll fail."
"That's not a reflection on you. Think of all the great writers who couldn't get published. Think of Emily Dickinson."
"She was a genius, way ahead of her time. I doubt I'll write something too good to be published." There was, it seemed, some limit to my arrogance.
"Well, anyway, I admire you. I'd never have the guts."
"What you don't have is the time," I said, and, as if on cue, a crash sounded somewhere in the background, followed by a frantic wail.
"Gotta go," she said, and was gone.
Letty and I were so young when we met that neither of us can remember the occasion. Our mothers, so the story goes, deposited us in a playpen at Johnson campaign headquarters in Pasadena and told us to amuse ourselves. Other than their sporadic loyalty to the Democratic Party, and the fact that both of them relish the entirely fictitious notion of themselves as young women so busy with the affairs of the world that they raised their daughters to be independent even as infants, my mother and Pam Larue have very little in common, and their friendship was long ago reduced to the exchange of nonreligious "holiday" cards. But Letty and I have ever since been as close as twins.
That's not to say we're alike. It's more that we're a sort of team, in the classic sense of hero and sidekick, and I don't think I'm being immodest, but only truthful, when I cast myself as the hero. Of course, she's much better than I am at many things, but her qualities--patience, for instance, and an easy laugh--are those that make for a good right-hand man. Even in our games, she was always Robin to my Batman, Watson to my Holmes, Boswell to my Johnson, and the times when she's been clearly the leader have been uncomfortable.
I remember distinctly an incident in first grade, when we were each assigned to render a tree in fall colors. It was work obviously well below my level of accomplishment--at home I'd recently completed a mosaic of painted macaroni that approximated one of the floors of Pompeii--but it was enjoyable to do something that didn't demand all of my resources, and I was quite pleased with the artful way I'd arranged and overlapped my swatches of construction paper.
Our teacher had been making the rounds of the room, peering over shoulders noncommittally, when suddenly she stopped.
"Look here!" she exclaimed, whisking Letty's paper off her desk and holding it up. Two or three construction paper "leaves" fluttered to the floor. "Now this is a tree!"
Letty's tree was good. She'd painstakingly shredded her paper into pieces so small and massed them with such intricate variation that the crown gave the effect of actual foliage. Her work was not only good, it was, I recognized with a pang, better than mine, which now looked clumsy and haphazard--the efforts of a child--in comparison. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to beam at Letty, who kept her head bent, shyly hiding a small, proud smile. Nevertheless, I was not happy for her. I was instead trying to console myself by noting that she had had the advantage of the sort of glue that dispensed only a small amount when you pressed the rubber applicator against the page, whereas I was forced to use the much more difficult to manage Elmer's. I even, for one brief second, disparaged her in my mind for putting so much energy into such a banal assignment.
Even as I experienced these feelings, I was deeply ashamed of them, and that shame is the only thing that now keeps me from utterly despising my small self. But while on the one hand I vowed never again to begrudge Letty her success, on the other, I promised myself that from that moment forward I would strain to the utmost, no matter what the project, so as never to be in a position to feel such chagrin again. That was the lesson I learned from first grade.
Letty was never so driven, which was at least in part the fault of her family. I think her parents must have had big plans for her when they named her Letitia, but there was never all that much get-up-and-go in the Larue household, and they let her name lapse into Letty almost immediately.
My mother was much more firm of purpose. "Please call her Margaret," she would say forbiddingly to everyone, even the well-intentioned mailman, who tried to shorten my name. My name, of course, presented a minefield of opportunities for corruptions--Meg, Peggy, Maggie, Margie, Maisie, Rita, Gretchen. She would accept none of them.
"Why?" I begged many times, especially during my Little Women period.
"Because your father and I named you Margaret," she said. "When you're older, you can let people call you whatever you decide, but I want to get a decent run out of the name we chose."
"Don't you like your name?" my father asked, puzzled and a little hurt.
I realize now that it wasn't the name I didn't like, but Margaret herself, whom I was beginning to find a little bossy. Margaret was admired, but Peggy, I believed, would be well liked. The way Letty was.
When I'd told Ted over our very late breakfast that I planned to work that afternoon and couldn't go with him on our regular Saturday ramble through the city, he was sweetly disappointed. "I thought you worked this morning. You don't need to write the whole thing the first week."
"I know, but I want to get a good bite out of it. If I just get half a chapter done this weekend, then I'll have a head start on Monday, when I can really buckle down while you're at work."
"You're right," he said. "If you think you'll get something done, you should work. Maybe we'll go to a movie tonight, then."
"Maybe," I said, "but I might be pretty far into my story by then. I may not want another narrative intruding."
Our kiss at the door savored of our great expectations for me.
I microwaved a cup of leftover coffee before I sat down at the table, turned on my laptop, and retrieved the document I'd named "Novel." Elaine with her ridiculous hair leapt onto the screen. I read over the single sentence I'd composed that morning. It seemed flat. It was going nowhere. "Pearly dawn" was pretentious. What had I been thinking, I wondered, pressing the delete key firmly? I couldn't write a novel just by stringing sentences together. I needed a plan, a sense of what I wanted to say. What did I want to say?
I pushed my laptop aside. I would take notes first, sketch out my ideas in old-fashioned ballpoint on solid paper. I noticed, as I bent to pick my pen off the floor where it had rolled, that the rug badly needed vacuuming. What with final exams and the deluge of grading, I hadn't cleaned the apartment in weeks. I tried to think of an important idea on which I could build a firm base for an important book, but the grit kept drawing my eyes to the floor. The windowsills, too, were fuzzy with dust, and the bottom of my coffee cup had collected some stickiness from the kitchen counter. I'd be able to think more clearly if my environment was less chaotic.
Around five-thirty, I sat down again at the computer. I'd cleaned all afternoon with satisfying concentration, interrupting my efforts between finishing the kitchen and starting the bathroom only for my call to Letty. I felt focused and relaxed, even a little weary. I was now ready to settle down for a few hours of mental exertion, so the sound of Ted's knock at the door was somewhat irritating.
"Why do you refuse to carry keys?"
In his hand was a small, plastic bag.
"Just a little surprise."
I reached for the bag, but he held it back. "Later," he said. "It's not to be given without ceremony."
"So you had a good day of work?" he said, glancing into the closet with the window on an air shaft we both used as a study. But I'd been careful to turn off my laptop.
Excerpted from All Is Vanity by Christina Schwarz. Copyright 2002 by Christina Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.