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I wish some university, somewhere, offered a course in survival.
Not how to survive when your plane crashes in the jungle, or when you get lost in the woods. Not even how to survive in the jungle-cities of today. Maybe, if I'd studied karate or carried a gun, I would have managed matters more efficiently during my recent misadventures. But I don't think karate or firearms would have helped. What I needed was a course in how to understand human beings.
There are courses in everything else. All of them lead, by some obscure chain of connection, to the acquisition of the Good Life a nice house in the suburbs, with a nice husband who has a nice job, and a parcel of nice kids. These days they even teach you how to produce the kids complete with anatomical charts and tests to find out whether or not you're frigid. If my only experience of S-E-X had come from that classroom, I might have decided it would be more fun to set up a workshop and build some nice little robots. You could program the robots to be "nice," which is more than you can do for real children.
But there are no courses in survival.
When you're small, you don't worry about surviving. Other people protect you from danger. They hide the bottles of bleach and the aspirin, and they won't let you ride your tricycle down the middle of the street. Eventually you realize that drinking bleach can make you dead, and so can cars, when you're in the middle of the street.
So what I want to know is: At what age do you learn about people? Your parents can't teachyou that; they can't put the bad guys on a high shelf, like bottles of bleach. And one of the reasons why they can't is because they can't tell the good guys from the bad guys either. That's maturity when you realize that you've finally arrived at a state of ignorance as profound as that of your parents.
I've had my experience, enough to last a lifetime, and all crammed into ten days. I'd like to think that I've learned something from it. But I don't know; if anything, decisions are harder to make now, because so many of the nice neat guidelines I used to accept have become blurred and confused. As I look back on it, I suspect I'd probably go right ahead and repeat the same blunders I made the first time.
If they were blunders. That's what I mean, about things getting blurry. Every action seems to produce a mixture of results, some good, some bad, some immediate, and some so far removed from the original event that you can barely see the connection.
Take, for example, that stupid comment I made the day I arrived home from college for Christmas vacation.
It was snowing outside, and the Christmas tree glittered with colored lights and shiny ornaments; and I looked at the packages under the tree, which were all, by their shapes, dress boxes and sweater boxes and little boxes made to hold costume jewelry and stockings; and I opened my big, flapping mouth, and I said,
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."
It was a feeble attempt at wit, I admit. It was also a tactical error, and I should have known better. I did know, even before I saw my mother's face congeal like quick-drying plaster. Helen liked to reminisce about my childhood, but this was the wrong kind of memory.
The reading aloud that was George's thing. It went on for years, long after I reached an age when I could read to myself. And Little Women was one of our private jokes George protesting feebly that no male should ever be expected to read Little Women, and me insisting that Little Women was the greatest book ever written, and that no literary education, male or female, was complete without it.
Helen never did understand those idiotic private jokes of ours. I can remember her standing there in the doorway, with her face wrinkled in an irritable smile, while I lay on my bed giggling and George read solemnly through Little Women, word by word, each phrase articulated with the uncertain accent of someone reading aloud in a language he doesn't really understand.... Oh, well, I guess it doesn't sound funny. Private jokes never do when you try to explain them. And poor Helen, standing there, with that puzzled half-smile, trying to figure it all out....
She wasn't trying to smile, that afternoon before Christmas. I wondered, disloyally, if Helen realized how much older she looked with that tight plaster mask of resentment. Helen doesn't like being old. She isn't, really. As she is fond of pointing out, I was born when she was only eighteen, and she spends a lot of time and money trying to look ten years less than her real age. More time and money lately, with her fortieth birthday coming up. I don't know why women flip over being forty. I won't mind, especially if I can look like Helen tall, slim, with a head of reddish-blond hair that shines like the shampoo ads on TV. She has beautiful legs, and she wears the right clothes. Of course she gets them at a discount; she's head buyer at the biggest department store in town, and she looks the part.
"What do you mean, no presents?" she asked sharply. "I'd hate to tell you how near I am to being overdrawn."
"I mean I meant, I was thinking of the toys you used to get me for Christmas the dolls and the beautiful clothes for them, the cute little dollhouse furniture from Germany and Denmark. When I..."The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits. Copyright © by Elizabeth Peters. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.