The Last of Her Kind
By Sigrid Nunez
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2006 Sigrid Nunez
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-374-18381-3
We had been living together for about a week when my roommate told me she had asked specifically to be paired with a girl from a world as different as possible from her own.
She did not want a roommate from the same privileged world in which she had been raised, she said. She did not want a roommate who had been raised, as she had been (but this wax my thought, not hers), to believe you could make this kind of special request and expect it would be granted. I, for example, would never have believed that I could have had any say in my choice of roommates. I did remember receiving some forms from the college housing office that summer, and answering such questions as "Do you mind rooming with a smoker?" But that I could have filled the blank half page under Comments with something like "I want a roommate from this or that background" would never have occurred to me. No, I wrote. I did not mind rooming with a smoker, even though I was not a smoker myself. I had no preferences of any kind. I was completely flexible. Though I had done well in high school, I had never taken it for granted that I would go to college: no one in my family had done so before me. That I had managed to gut into not just any college but a good one remained a little overwhelming. I left the space under Comments blank. I had no comment to write unless it was to say thank you, thank you for accepting me, and when my roommate told me what she had done, it brought me up sharp. How exactly had she phrased it? What words had she used to describe me?
* * *
It was 1968. "Your roommate will be Dooley Drayton," someone from the school had written me later that summer. "Miss Drayton is from Connecticut." But one of the many changes she made soon after arriving on campus was her name. She would no longer go by the name Dooley, she said. It stank of bourgeois affectation. And worse. Dooley was a family name, and the part of her family that had borne the name, somewhere on her mother's side, had been from the South, she said, and were descended from plantation owners. In other words, slaveholders. So "Dooley" was out of the question. We were never to call her by that shameful name but rather by her middle name, the taintless "Ann."
Her father was the head of a firm that produced surgical instruments and equipment, a business that had been in Drayton hands for some generations (before that they were barbers, Ann told me, and this was true and not the joke I at first took it to be), and the family owned several valuable patents. Her mother did not work, she had never worked, though she'd had a good education. She, too, was from a prominent family, older and more distinguished if less prosperous than the Draytons, and she was an alumna of our school.
"She's one of those women," Ann said. "You know: she belongs to all these clubs and sits on all these boards, she goes to a lot of benefits and parties, and when she throws a party herself, it gets written up in the paper."
I did not know any woman like that.
But I had not needed to be told that my new roommate came from a family much better off than my own. I had seen the clothes she brought from home. I had watched her unpack her suitcases and fill her closet and dresser drawers (the room comes back to me: two of each-closet, dresser, desk and chair, desk lamp, armchair, mirror, bed; I would remember the room as very small, but it seems to me now it must have been a rather sizable room if it could hold all these furnishings) with her beautiful new clothes. But I had seen those clothes before. I had pored over them as they appeared in photographs in the recent "college-bound" issues of magazines like Seventeen and Mademoiselle. The same poor-boy sweaters and man-tailored shirts, the same suede jackets and maxi skirts. The same tweeds and plaids. Heather in various shades was big that season. High-heeled boots were all the rage. Over-the-knee socks were still in style, and I remember textured stockings.
Not that Ann looked like the young women in the magazines. She was as thin as a model, perhaps even thinner than those models, who were not as thin as models are now. But she was not beautiful. Her lips were thin, so thin I had trouble imagining any man wanting to kiss them, but I suppose men did want to-she always had plenty of dates. Her nose also was thin, and sharp, and her chin was sharp-a profile like a hatchet, I remember thinking, with her long, thin neck for the handle. Her eyes were a cool shade of green, but her blond eyelashes-she was very fair-were almost invisible. She had what is sometimes called blue skin, the kind of milky, near-transparent vein-revealing skin that will not ever tan, a source of anguish to her. The word meager came to me the first time I saw her. She was meager. She was mousy. She had poor posture and a gawky walk. Under a hundred pounds she weighed, but her step was tromping, graceless. She did not look rich or sophisticated, there was nothing elegant or chic about her, no director ever would have cast her as herself, she was not a convincing heiress or debutante. "I can't play patrician," I once heard a waiter-actor lament, and neither could Ann. On the other hand, she would not have looked out of place waiting on tables.
She would not get much use out of that perfect collegiate wardrobe. Only for a few weeks at the beginning of the semester, the same period when she also wore makeup and set her hair, did she pay attention to how she dressed. She would set her hair at night, before bed, using setting lotion and large plastic clip-on rollers. In the morning she would comb the hair out so that on one side it turned under, in a pageboy, and on the other side it turned up, in a flip, and she raked the long bangs sideways across her brow. It was a popular style then; it had been popular for a long time. But that year it went out completely-or maybe it had already gone out. Hard to say: styles (in all things) had begun changing so rapidly. At any rate, it was all wrong now, no matter which side you looked at it: the flip was out, and so was the pageboy. Bangs were still permissible, but not set and combed like that, never.
So Ann stopped setting her hair, and then she stopped cutting it. She let it grow, including the bangs, until they were all grown out, and she washed it every day with Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap and let it dry naturally, and that is how she wore it, straight and parted down the middle, her best feature by far, eye-catching in its flaxen plenty. (Those who insisted Ann Drayton secretly used bleach did not know Ann Drayton.) And she stopped wearing makeup.
One day that fall she put up signs in the dorm: she was having a closet sale. She sold everything, even some things she had never worn or had hardly worn, for much less than what she had paid, or what her mother had paid, I should say. Ann did not keep the money. She gave it away. She gave it to some charity, as I recall, or more likely to one of the political causes she had taken up by then. And after the sale, at which I myself bought nothing (she was not giving the clothes away, but to me they were still her castoffs, and I would not have been caught dead in them), she was rarely to be seen in anything other than a T-shirt and jeans.
So far, nothing remarkable. Many of us would change the way we looked that first semester. Many would change our habits as well. Half if not more of the students who had called themselves nonsmokers on those housing forms took up smoking as freshmen, including Ann and me. We could smoke anywhere on campus, there was no such thing as a smoking section, and in class more often than not the professor smoked, too.
Change: many new students that year were appalled to find themselves in a college for women-for, of course, they were no longer the same people they had been the winter before, when they'd applied to Barnard. They had not suspected then what they knew for certain now: women's colleges were pre-Gutenberg, and the very first thing some of these girls did was apply for a transfer to a school that was coed.
Ann's mother was furious when she learned what Ann had done. They had shopped for that college wardrobe together. Not just money, but a lot of time and effort had now been wasted. But Mrs. Drayton had little power over Ann, least of all the power to make Ann feel remorse. Ann did not care what her mother thought. She did not care what either of her parents thought. She did not care whether she made them angry or pleased them-you could tell she was happier when she had managed not to please them. She did not please them at all when she stopped answering to "Dooley," as she had not pleased them the year before when she stopped calling them Mummy and Daddy and began calling them Sophie and Turner. It was there from the day I met her, this overt disrespect, and it took my breath away to hear how she spoke about her parents and how she spoke to them, on the phone. (Most of us used the community dorm phones, but a private phone was one bourgeois privilege Ann would not do without.) I actually heard her tell her mother to go luck herself. I heard her tell her father he was a prick. I had never known anyone to speak to his or her parents this way or to treat them with such contempt, I thought surely at some point her parents would draw the line, they would punish her, they would pull her out of school, stop paying her bills-something. But Ann assured me they would never do any of this. "I'm their only child," she explained. "I could murder someone and they wouldn't disown me. I could murder one of them and the other would stand by me." And yet she saw nothing in this to admire. Such loyalty could not dilute her contempt by a drop.
She clenched her fists when she spoke of them.
What had they done to her? Had they beaten or starved her? Had they kept her locked up in a dark room? Had her father perhaps done the unmentionable? Had her mother turned a blind eye?
No. I had seen girls to whom such things had happened, and they did not behave like this one. The girl I knew whose father had done the unmentionable while her mother turned a blind eye was always telling everyone that she had the best mummy and daddy in the world, long after she had been taken away from them.
Not long into that first semester, the father of one of our classmates wrote a letter to The New York Times. A Columbia alumnus, he had encouraged his daughter to apply to Barnard, and he had been thrilled when she was accepted. But the school to which she applied was a far cry from where she now found herself, this man wrote. Bad enough that about the same time she received her letter of acceptance, Columbia students had rioted, occupying buildings and forcing the university to shut down. Bad enough that a Barnard girl had made national news after being threatened with expulsion for cohabiting with a boy. The nightly curfew that had been in effect when his daughter applied to Barnard had been abolished almost as soon as she arrived, along with all restrictions regarding male guests. What next? he wanted to know. Coed dorms?
In fact, the following semester, we would demonstrate for coed dorms by exchanging beds with Columbia undergraduates for a couple of nights, and this, too, made national news.
The letter from the Outraged Father was much read on campus and, of course, derided. I bit my tongue when Ann announced she was going to write a letter in response, and I had to hide how impressed I was when her letter was printed.
It was the year of Tet, the year of the highest number of American casualties in Vietnam. It was the year of the Prague Spring, the year of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the year the Democratic National Convention turned bloody (it was also the year of My Lai, but we were not yet aware of it)-and what was it that had stirred this particular American citizen to protest? (I don't think Ann wrote "citizen"; I think she wrote some other word which an editor changed.) Curfews! The relaxing of parietal rules. Ann wrote that she was reminded of all those Americans who were more upset about the use of obscenities by war protesters than they were about the war itself. But her main point, as I recall, and presumably the reason her letter was published, was the inability of the two generations to understand each other. "We seem incapable of agreeing about what is important." For this in itself was an issue of major importance in those days: how parents and children were being wedged further and further apart.
I agreed with Ann. She was right, of course. The man's letter was pre-Gutenberg. And I was glad that in her letter Ann had also pointed out that it was only Barnard students who had to obey curfews in the first place. "We get curfews, they"-our Columbia brothers-"get maid service." For some, that female students were expected to clean their own rooms was more galling than any curfew.
So I agreed with Ann. I think we almost all did. And yet my first, honest (though unexpressed) thought upon reading the father's letter had been: Hey, this man really cares about his daughter.
As it turned out, the daughter herself, a big pink-faced girl with long blond braids who always made me think of a milkmaid, had not been so touched. Her father had not consulted her before publishing his letter, and she accused him of humiliating her.
It was the first time Ann had ever shared a room with another person. (In her house in Connecticut, which would have been spacious even for a family larger than three, she had not only her own bedroom but her own floor.) To her, the idea of having a roommate was thrilling, promising a kind of intimacy that she, as an only child, had never known. Like all only children, she had suffered from not having brothers and sisters, and though she'd always had friends, her childhood came back to her as a time of piercing loneliness. I knew that piercing loneliness, too, and that you did not have to be an only child to suffer from it. She'd been sorry when her parents decided against sending her to boarding school, not only because this set her apart from her two best friends but also because it denied her a chance to live out one of her deepest fantasies. Most of us dreaded the idea of having to share a room with a stranger, but for Ann it was one of the best things about coming to Barnard.
What she had really wanted, she said, was a black roommate. But she had not had the courage to ask. She had hoped she might end up with a black roommate anyway. Although in 1968 there were more black students entering college than in any year before, there were still not many. At Barnard, just about all black freshmen were paired with one another. After that first year, when students were no longer required to share a room, most of them would choose to live on the floor that was for black residents only. There was a special table in the dining room reserved for BOSS (Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters), and during meals I would see first Dooley and later Ann gaze longingly in that direction. "I wish I were black" was a sentiment she had no qualms about expressing, was indeed constantly expressing-though never within black hearing, it must be said. She felt only shame and horror at being a member of the cancerous (sometimes it was leprous) white race.
We were lying in the dark. It was late, and we lay in our twin beds, I under an army blanket that had belonged to my father, she under a quilt that had belonged to her grandmother. It would become our habit, chatting in the dark like this before going to sleep. A Simon and Garfunkel record was playing, the volume very low. Ann loved music, and to my astonishment she had brought to school an expensive stereo set and two large boxes of LPs.
I did not say anything when she told me this-how she had wanted a black roommate. How she had not had the nerve to come straight out and ask, and so had merely requested someone from a world "as different as possible" from her own. ("I thought they would get it.") And when I remained silent, she remained silent, too. The music stopped. The stereo turned itself off. This late, the traffic below our windows was fairly quiet. But there was always at least some traffic, and there was always the IRT. Another astonishment, for me, and reason for envy: how quickly Ann adjusted to living on Broadway. (On the housing questionnaire, of course I'd said no, I would not mind living in a room that got lots of street noise.)
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