Stir-Fryby Emma Donoghue
Exhilerating...irreverent, and extremely funny,"- Ms.
Seventeen and sure of nothing, Maria has left her parents' small-town grocery for university life in Dublin. An ad in the Student Union-"2 [FEMALE SYMBOL] seek flatmate. No bigots."-leads Maria to a home with warm Ruth and wickedly funny Jael, students who are older and more/i>/b>/p>/i>… See more details below
Exhilerating...irreverent, and extremely funny,"- Ms.
Seventeen and sure of nothing, Maria has left her parents' small-town grocery for university life in Dublin. An ad in the Student Union-"2 [FEMALE SYMBOL] seek flatmate. No bigots."-leads Maria to a home with warm Ruth and wickedly funny Jael, students who are older and more fascinating than she'd expected. A poignant, funny, and sharply insightful coming-of-age story, Stir-fry is a lesbian novel that explores the conundrum of desire arising in the midst of friendship and probes feminist ideas of sisterhood and nonpossessiveness.
Emma Donoghue is the author of the forthcoming Slammerkin , Hood and Kissing the Witch . Born in Dublin, she now lives in Ontario, Canada. Stir-fry was her first novel.
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- Alyson Publications
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"2 [female] SEEK FLATMATE." Two diamonds of masking tapeheld the card to the notice board. "OWN ROOM. Wow! NOBIGOTS."
It was all in red ink except the Wow!, which must havebeen scrawled on by a passerby. A thumb had smudged thetop of the 2, giving it the shape of a swan with its beak heldup to the wind. Maria leaned against the wall, getting out ofthe way of a passing stream of hockey players, and rummagedfor a biro.
She copied the ad onto the first page of her refill pad,which looked, she realised with a surge of irritation, as blankand virginal as the homework notebooks the nuns alwayssold on the first day back to school. She drew a jagged linebelow the number. Chances were the room would be filled bynow, since the card's top two corners were dog-eared. Still, itwas worth a bash, better than anything else on offer. Mariawasn't sure how many more weeks she could stand with theaunt and her footstools. Her eyes slid down the notice board.It was leprous with peeling paper, scraps offering everythingfrom "Grinds In Anglo-Saxon By A Fluent Speaker" to"heavyduty bikelock for sale." All the propositions in theaccommodation section sounded equally sinister. "V. lowrent" had to mean squalor, and "informal atmos." hinted atblue mould in the bread bin.
Returning her biro to her shirt pocket, Maria stood backagainst a pillar papered with flyers. She clasped her handsloosely over her refill pad, holding it against her belly. Thecorners of her mouth tilted up just a little, enough to give theimpression that she was waitingfor someone, she hoped, butnot so much as to look inane. She hugged the refill padtighter against her hips; it felt as comfortable as old armour.Her eyes stayed low, watching the crowd that had overflowedevery bench and table in the Students' Union.
A knot of black-leather lads were kicking a coffee machine;she looked away at once, in case one of them might accosther with some witticism she would be unable to invent aretort for. Behind the layer of grit on the window, her eyecaught a flat diamond of silver. The lake had looked so muchbluer in the college prospectus. Her grip on the pad was tootight; she loosened her fingers and thought of being a pike.Steely and plump, nosing round the lake's cache of oilcans,black branches, the odd dropped sandal mouldering togreen. A great patient fish, waiting for summer to dip thefirst unsuspecting toe within an inch of her bite. Maria swalloweda smile.
Bending her knees, she let herself down until she was sittingon the top step. Something tickled her on the side of theneck, and she jolted, but it was only a stray corner from oneof the orange freshers'-ball posters. She read the details overher shoulder, noting that committee was missing a few consonants.Then she told herself not to be so damn negative onthe first day and turned her face forward again. In the farcorner, under a brown-spattered mural of Mother Ireland,she spotted a slight acquaintance from home. His corduroyknees were drawn up to his chin, an Ecology Society pamphletbarricading his face. No, she would not go and sayhello, she was not that desperate.
* * *
Trigonometry was a stuffy mousetrap on the fourth floor.She counted twenty-four heads and squeezed her leg an inchfarther onto the back bench. The girl beside her seemed to beasleep, streaked hair hanging round her face like ivy; herpadded hip was warm against Maria's. When the tutor askedfor their names, there was a sort of tremor along the bench,and the girl's head swung up.
Maria was reading the ad one more time; she could feelher mouth going limp with indecision. As the registration listwas being passed around, she gave a tentative nudge to herneighbor and held up the refill pad at an angle. "Sorry, butwould you have any idea what exactly the wee symbolstands for?"
Salmon-pink fingernails covered a small yawn. "Justmeans women," the girl murmured, "but they'd be fairlyfeministy, you know the sort."
Her glance was speculative, but Maria whispered "Manythanks" and bent her head. She was far from sure which sortshe was meant to know the sort of. In the library at home shehad found The Female Eunuch, a tattered copy with Nelly theNutter's observations scrawled in the margins. She hadrichly enjoyed itespecially the bits Nelly had done zigzagson with her crayonbut could not imagine flatmates who'dgo around quoting it all day. Still, Maria reminded herself asthe tutorial dragged to a close, it was not familiarity she hadcome here for. If Dublin was going to feel so oddso windy,littered with crisp packets, never quietthen the odder thebetter, really.
It was five past twelve before she could slide round thecluster of elbows and out of the office. A knot of lecturersemerged from their tearoom behind her, their Anglophileaccents filling the corridor. She hurried down the steps insearch of a phone. Catching her reflection in a dusty staircasewindow, Maria paused to poke at the shoulder pads on herblack jacket. Damn the things, they were meant to give an airof assurance, but they made her look humpbacked. Shepushed back her fringe and gave her peaky chin an encouraginglook.
She ignored that, because nobody knew her name.
The shriek went higher. She peered under the handrail tofind the streaky blonde from the tutorial waving from a huddleof trench coats. To reach them she had to weave betweenan abstract bronze and the Archaeology Club's papier-mâchédolmen.
"It is Maria, isn't it?" The girl wore an enamel badge thatread Material Girl.
"Yeah, only it's a hard i," she explained.
The voice rolled past her. "Hard? Godawful. I'm droppingout of maths right away, life's too short. I heard the trig manread out your name, and I thought, well she looks like sheknows what he's burbling on about, which is more than Ido."
"I sort of like maths," Maria said reluctantly.
"Perv." Her eyes were straying to a mark on the thigh ofher pale rose trousers; she picked at it with one nail. "PersonallyI'm switching to philosophy, they say it's a guaranteedhonour." She glanced up. "Oh, I'm Yvonne, did I say? Sorry, Ishould have said."
Maria let her face lift in the first grin of the day. Not wantingit to last a second too long, she looked away and mentionedthat she needed a pay phone.
"Over in the far corner, past the chaplaincy. Is it about thatflat share?"
"Well, probably." Too defensive. "I haven't really made upmy mind."
"Personally," Yvonne confided, "I wouldn't trust anythingadvertised in that hole of a Students' Union. A cousin of minehad a bad experience with a secondhand microwave oven."
Maria's mouth twisted. "What did it do to her, exactly?"
"I never got the full details," Yvonne admitted. "Well, listen,if the Libbers don't suit you, I have an uncle who's leasing terriblynice flats, apartments really, just outside Dublin"
"Actually, I want something fairly low-budget," Maria toldher. "Got to make the money stretch."
Yvonne nodded, her hoop earrings bobbing. "God, I know,don't talk to me, where does it go? I'm already up to my eyesin debt to Mum for my ball gown. How are we going to makeit to Christmas, Maria, tell me that?"
* * *
"Eh, hello, sorry, is that oh three six nine four two?"
"Far as I know."
"Oh. Well, it's just about your ad."
"Wasn't it you?"
"Not that I know of."
"Your ad. Your ad on the notice board in the Students'Union."
"I haven't a notion what you're talking about."
"But, sorry, but I saw it there just this morning."
"What did it say?"
"Well it starts `two' and then a sort of symbol thing"
"Hang on. Ruth? Ruth, turn off that bloody hair dryer. Listen,have you taken to advertising our services in the S.U.?What? No, I amn't being thick. Oh, the flat, all right, wellwhy didn't you tell me? Yo, are you still there? Nobody tellsme anything."
"It's just I was hoping, maybe I could come and have alook, if it's not too inconvenient? Unless you have someonealready?"
"For all I know she could have sublet the entire building tothe Jehovah's."
"Maybe I should ring back later."
"Ah, no, it's grand. Why don't you come over for eats?"
"Tomorrow we die."
"Seize the day, for tomorrow we die. Sorry, just being pretentious.Make it eightish."
"Are you sure? That'd be wonderful. Bye so."
"Hang on, what's your name? Just so we don't invite somepassing stranger in for dinner."
"Sorry. It's Maria."
"Well I'm Jael. By the way, was our address on the ad?"
"I don't think so, no."
"I suppose I'd better give it to you, then, unless you'd preferto use your imagination?"
"Do I get the feeling you're taking the piss out of me?"
"You bet your bottom I am. OK, seriously, folks, it's sixty-nineBeldam Square, the top flat. Get the number seven busfrom college, and ask the conductor to let you off after theLittle Sisters of the Poor Right?"
"I think so."
She loved the double-decker buses, every last lumberingdragon. One Christmas her Mam had brought the kids up toDublin for a skite. Maria was only small, seven or so, but shedropped her mother's hand halfway up the spiral steps ofthe bus and ran to the front seat. Sketching a giant wheelbetween her mittens, she steered round each corner, castingdisdainful glances at cyclists who disappeared under theshadow of the bus as if the ground had gulped them down.As she revved up O'Connell Street the afternoon was darkening.When the bus stopped at Henry Street, she had tobe prised away; she gave up her hand and followed hermother's stubby heels into the crowd. Looking back over hershoulder, she saw the Christmas lights coming on all downthe street, white bulbs filling each tree in turn and turningthe sky navy blue. Maria tried asking her mother why thelight made things darker, but by then they were on MooreStreet, and her voice was lost in the yelps of wrappinpaypafifatwenty.
This was not the same route but a much quieter journey, orperhaps a decade had dulled her perceptions. The buschugged round Georgian squares, past the absentmindedwindows of office blocks. Gone half seven, and not a soulabroad; only the occasional newsagent spilled its light at acorner. Maria got off at the right stop but, dreading to beearly, walked back to the last shop and loitered among themagazines for twenty minutes. The girl behind the counterhad a hollow cough that kept doubling her over on her highstool. As the time ticked away Maria began to feel so uncomfortablethat she finally bought Her magazine and a bag ofcrisps.
She was licking the salt off her fingers as she rounded thethird corner of Beldam Square. Number 69 edged a narrowstreet; the digits were engraved on the fanlight. Mariaknocked twice on the side door's scuffed paintwork beforediscovering that it was on the latch. Inside, she fumbled forthe switch; a light came on ten feet above her, round andpearly as the one in the dentist's that she always focussed onduring drilling. Halfway up the first flight of carpeted stairs,she remembered the glossy under her arm. She unrolled itand scanned the slippery cover. "Boss Giving You Grief?"That was fine, and not even the most fervid feminist couldobject to "Living with Breast Cancer." She had her doubtsabout "Why Nice Men Aren't Sexy," and when her eyecaught "Ten Weeks to Trim Those Bulges for Christmas!" sherolled up the magazine and left it at the base of the stairs. Shecould collect it on her way out. She might not even like them.
Between two steps Maria found herself in darkness. Damnlight must be on a timer. At arm's length she reached the bannister;it was a cool snake of wood drawing her handupward. Not a whiff of lentils, she thought, as she wasguided round a bend and up another flight of stairs. Howmany feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? One toscrew in the bulb, one to stir the lentil casserole, and one toobject to the use of the word screw. Her obnoxious littlebrother it was who'd told her that, when she was complainingabout something sexist on the telly one evening. She'dgot him for it with a dishcloth later.
Grey light knifed the top steps. The clean, unvarnisheddoor hung several inches open; Maria watched it shift a littlein the draught. She buttoned up her jacket, then undid itagain. The savor of garlic was tantalising. Her first tap madealmost no sound; she summoned her nerve and thumped onthe wood.
"Hi, hang on, dinner's burning," came a yelp. A longpause. "I mean, you can come on in."
Maria was standing in the shadowy hall, fingering half apeanut at the bottom of her jeans pocket, when the womanelbowed through a bead curtain. Stuffing wisps of hair intoher black cap, she smiled, warm as toast. "I'm Ruth, the otherone." She brushed the beads out of the way and guidedMaria in. Clearing a place on the tartan blanket that drapedthe sofa, she murmured, "Just hang on there while I have aserious conversation with the stir-fry. Oh, goddess, what amess."
Maria cleared her throat. "It's not that bad," she commented,fitting herself on the sofa between a dictionary and asmall box of blackberries.
"See, I meant to come home early and tidy up so as I couldplay the suave hostess, but I was queueing for the libraryphotocopier and my watch stopped, so anyway, I'm just in."Ruth turned back to the wok and gave it a shake that madethe hob clang. "And this cursed onion keeps sticking to mynonstick surface."
Maria watched her swerve between the stove and thetable, carrying wine glasses and earthenware plates. Ruth'snarrow face, framed in brief dark curls, swung round thekitchen. From the sink she pulled a heap of wet branches,stood them in an empty milk bottle, and placed it grandly inthe center of the table. Maria's eyes waited for a drip fromthe rusty tip of a leaf to fall onto the wood.
Ruth subsided onto the sofa. Her eyes rested on her oversizedblack watch, then lifted; they were wary and chocolate-brown."Typical, I bust a gut getting everything ready for tenpast, and her ladyship isn't home yet."
"I was meaning to ask, is it spelt with a Y?"
"Her name. As in Yale lock."
"No no, it's a J. Jael from the Book of Judges. In the Bible,you know? Sorry, I shouldn't assume. Anyway, this Jaelkilled an enemy general by hammering a tent peg into hisbrain, if I remember rightly."
"Oh." After a pause, Maria tried raising her voice again."And she's at college too?"
Ruth let her breath out in a yawn before answering. "In along-term sense, yes, but right now she's probably moseyinground town buying purple socks and drinking cappuccinos."She leaned back into the cushions and rolled her head fromside to side.
"She does that often?"
"Every few weeks. Only sometimes shoelaces rather thansocks. It's her hormones, you know."
They were beginning to giggle when the front doorbanged open and feet clumped down the passage.
Ruth's narrow face opened. "Jaelo," she sang. "Come hereand entertain our guest."
A pause, and then a pale, freckled face broke through thebeads. She was very tall, with very ostentatious ruddy hair.An unsettling laugh as she tossed her plastic bags onto thesofa, just missing the blackberries. "Hello there, new person,I'd forgotten all about you. It's Maria, right?"
"Yeah, but with a hard iMar-iy-a," she explained. "But itdoesn't really matter, everyone tends to pronounce it wronganyway." God, how seventeen.
"Did you deliberately pick it to rhyme with pariah?" askedJael, her chair scraping the bare board floor.
"Eh, no, actually." Go on, don't cop out. "What does itmean?"
Struggling with a bootlace, Jael paused, one foot in the air."D'you know, I couldn't tell you. Some sort of deviant. It'sone of those words you throw around all your life untilsomeone asks you what it means and you realise you've beentalking through your rectum."
Maria cleared her throat.
"Outcast," murmured Ruth as she carried the wok to thetable, her face averted from the steam. "Pariah is the lowestof the Indian castes."
"And knowall is the second lowest." Jael slid her handinto the crocodile oven glove and lunged at Ruth, whodipped out of the way.
The nearest seat was taken by a red-socked foot. "Sorry,Maria, my size tens need a throne of their own. Sit up there atthe head of the table," commanded Jael. "Only don't leanback too far, or the chair might collapse."
Maria slid onto the chair and accepted a smoking plateful.She tackled a mushroom.
"Don't mind the woman," said Ruth, unrolling her denimsleeves and passing the basket of garlic bread. "She broke itherself last summer; we had a few people in for dinner, andshe got carried away in the middle of an impromptu guitarrecital."
"All my guitar recitals are impromptu," said Jael in adepressed tone. She wrenched the corkscrew from the winebottle gripped between her knees and bent toward Maria.
Automatically Maria covered the glass. "None for me,thanks."
Jael trickled the wine through Maria's fingers. Mariasnatched her hand away. Red drips scattered on the table;one ran along a crack in the wood. "I said I-"
"I heard what you said." The round-bellied glass was twothirds full. "But you can't insult Ruth's cooking by drinkingwater, especially not plague-ridden Dublin tap water."
Maria sucked her fingers dry one by one as the conversationslid away from her. The wine tasted as rich as the overpricedbottles her Da kept in the back of the shop for theoccasional blow-ins from Dublin on their way to a holidaycottage. They often chose her town square to stop in, tostretch their legs and fill up the boot of the car with gingercake and firelighters. How many years before she wouldbecome a foreigner like them? She reached for her glass andtook a noiseless sip. Three years of the uni, that's if she hadthe luck to pass everything first time. Then some kind of ajob for which her statistics classes would in no way havequalified her. Or maybe she could cling on and do an M.A. inart history. Go on the dole and help kids paint murals oncrumbling city walls. On what day in what month of thisqueue of years would she find that she had become a rootlessstranger, a speck in the urban sprawl? The accent was waveringalready; her "good night" to the bus driver this eveningfeatured vowels she never knew she had.
There was something glinting on the window behind Ruth'sbobbing head; a hawk shape, a giant butterfly? Maria didn'twant to interrupt their argument, which seemed to be aboutthe future (or lack of it) of the Irish language. She could lookmore closely at the window in daylight. If she was ever here indaylight. If she didn't catch the train home tonight and startsorting potatoes in the shop on Monday morning. At least in asmall town people knew how to pronounce your name.
By the time Maria had forked down her cooling dinner,Jael was boasting of her twenty years' experience of finewine.
"They put it in your baby bottle?" suggested Maria.
She turned, big-eyed. "You mean you didn't warn her?"
Ruth was staring at the fridge with an air of abstraction. "Iknew I'd forget to add the bean sprouts. Sorry, warn what?"
"That we're old fogeys. That dreaded breed who lurkunder the euphemism of Mature Students." Jael lifted a curlaway to point out invisible crows' feet round her eyes. "Yourcharming hostess is twenty-four, and I, loath though I am toadmit it, am twenty-nine."
"You're not." Maria's eyes shifted from one to the other.She took another sip of wine. "Neither of you look it. I don'tmean you look young, exactly, but not nearly thirty."
Jael cackled, balancing her last mushroom on a forkful ofbroccoli. "I retain my youthful appearance by sucking theblood of virginal freshers by night."
"You look much more aged than me," Ruth reflected."Doesn't she, Maria?"
"I'm not taking sides, I'm just a visitor."
Ruth reached past Jael for the wine. "If her hair wasn't red,the grey would be much more obvious. And you should seethe cellulite on her hips."
Jael made a face of outrage and flicked a pea at Ruth; Ruthretreated to the sink to fill the kettle.
"So what about you?" Jael asked.
Maria jumped; she had been engrossed in making a swirlof wine with her fork on the table. "What about me?"
"Oh, the usual things," said Jael, tugging her frayed, multicoloredjumper over her head and tossing it just short of thesofa. "Place of origin, college subjects, vital statistics, badhabits, thoughts on the meaning of life."
Maria considered, the fork tasting metallic in her mouth. "Idon't like listing myself," she said, smiling slightly to cushionthe words.
Was that respect in Jael's salty blue eyes, or amusement?
Maria edged her glazed mug over to be filled from thecafetière.
"But then," Jael went on, "how are we meant to knowwhether you have all the necessary attributes of a good flatmate?"
Her mother would slap her hand for being rude, but then,her mother was more than a hundred miles away. And theynever had cream in coffee at home. She took the jug from theoutstretched hand of Ruth, whose eyes rested on her. "Tell usthis muchhow did you come to answer our ad? I'd havethought you'd have friends from home coming up to collegewith you."
"Oh, I have. Well, school friends, not real friends. They'remostly doing commerce or agriculture. They're nice, there'snothing wrong with them," she added uncomfortably. "It'sjust that I've had enough of pretending to be equally nice."
Ruth nodded. "I used to have some friends I could onlydescribe as nice. Life is too short."
"Besides," Maria went on, taking a scalding mouthful ofcoffee, "I can just imagine what sharing a flat with schoolfriends would be like. Borrowing stamps and comparing brasizes, you know the way."
Jael coughed so hard she had to put her cup down. "Therewas none of that in my day. Support girdles we wore, backthen."
"Oh and also," said Maria, turning back to Ruth's gaze,"why I noticed your ad was the bit about no bigots."
Hunched over her mug, Jael sniggered, for no reason thatMaria could see.
"That was my idea," Ruth murmured. "It simplifiesthings."
"It was eye-catching," Maria assured her.
Had she said something stupid? Was she showing heryouth again? She leapt into speech. "I was once stuck in aGaeltacht in Mayo learning to speak Irish for three entireweeks with a pair of bitches who supported apartheid. Idon't think I could stick a flat unless everyone in it was basicallyliberal."
"We Dubliners are very liberal altogether, you'll find," Jaelcommented, shovelling the coarse curls back from her forehead."Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Guinness."
"I'm the only Dub here," commented Ruth.
"Ah, Kildare's only a county away. Besides, I've been soakingup the metropolitan atmosphere for a fair while now; I'mas much a true Dub as a snobby Southsider like you anyway."Jael ducked to avoid the tea towel. "Listen, why don'twe start showing this bogtrotter round our bijou residence?"
Excerpted from Stir-fry by Emma Donoghue. Copyright © 1994 by EMMA DONOGHUE. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
THE ORIGINS OF ANGLING
By John McDonald
Lyons & Burford, Publishers
Copyright © 1963 Time, Incorporated.All rights reserved.
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