Winner of a 2002 Lambda Literary Award
In a steam-filled diner in a college town, Flannery Jansen catches sight of something more beautiful than she's ever seen: a graduate student, reading. The seventeen-year-old, new to evrything around hercollege, the East Coast, bodies of literature, and the sexual flurries of student lifeis shocked by her desire to follow this wherever it will take her. When Flannery finds herself enrolled in a class with remote, brilliant older woman, she is intimidated at first, but gradually becomes Anne Arden's studentBaudelaire, lipstick colors, or how to travel with a loverFlannery proves an eager pupil, until one day learns more about Anne than she ever wanted to know.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)|
About the Author
Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of the novel The Metaphysical Touch, and a collection of short stories, Ten Women Who Shook the Worldboth published by Picador. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Read an Excerpt
The leaves were confettied brightly over the sidewalk as if a parade had just passed, and Flannery did not think she had ever in her life seen such colors. They would get deeper and more heartfelt, she knew, with warm oranges and pomegranate reds, and she could hardly wait for the experience. Like every other sensation, that sight was still before her. But already they were goldenrod and butternut on the ground, and up in the trees (she looked skyward) infinite greens, all the apple and lime and melon flesh she could imagine. They were so beautiful she wanted to eat them or breathe them, take them inside her, make them part of herself. At the very least, she wanted to not ever forget them. She told her memory to hold on to them; there might come a time later when she would need their solace.
She came from a place where autumn meant oncoming dampness and fog, the new drawl of the school year: a plain, dull gravity of shoulders and hope. Nothing like this fierceness of light and the brisk bite of cold on the cheek, which seemed playful, a love nip, rather than a somber slap of warning that winter might come. She was not yet wary of the winters here, having not moved through one. She knew this approaching splendor meant death and decay, the boding of ice-prisoned branches and slippery black streets, but could not make herself feel the grief in it. All this vividness she could read only as exhilaration. Not melancholy.
Flannery abandoned herself to movie clichés of the Eastshe'dlearned as a girl in the West. She kicked her tennis-shoed feet through the leaves. She buried her hands in the pockets of her coat, which had a serious weight she was not used to. She knew that this lift of fall glory, which brought her to a shocking peak of happinessfrom where, suddenly, she had a complete panoramic view; could see the shape of her future, the blank scope of her forthcoming cities and daysshe knew that she would never again reach such a height of pure, sensual pleasure. Never again in her life.
She was seventeen. She had no idea about anything, really. And she was about to meet someoneliterally, around the next corner.
Within that person, a new and altogether unsuspected happiness waited.
Around the corner was a diner. Diner: even the words were new here, as if she were in another country, which every single minute she felt herself to be. She had grown up with coffee shops, not diners. She had eaten not grinders but subs. She'd never considered, not for a moment, the idea of a jelly omelette.
This diner was called the Yankee Doodle, a cheerful name that belied the cramped gloom of the place. The Yankee Doodle had jelly omelettes on the menu, and Flannery was feeling bold as she sat down. Sure, she could have a toasted bran, corn, or blueberry muffinit hardly mattered which, they were essentially the same, and she could in anticipation taste the crisp buttered edge of each neat diskbut with the gold splendor still in her spirit from the leaves, she said to the prune-faced waitress who waited, wiry with impatience and sarcastic with accent,
"A jelly omelette, please. And a glass of orange juice."
The waitress nodded, scribbled on her pad, and retreated behind the narrow Formica counter, along which a few jacketed shapes huddled over hot drinks and doughnuts, or hash browns mixed with ketchup-bloodied eggs. To a stooped, white-shirted man whose balding head was all but lost to steam clouds of grease, the waitress instructed with unneeded volume,
The phrase, ridiculous when spoken, especially so loudly in the bored voice of the waitress, had a single advantage. It caught the attention of a figure sitting at a table in a near corner, from whom Flannery might otherwise have hidden as she sank back into her familiar state of wrong-footed self-consciousness.
Dressed in black, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette. Absorbed in a bookuntil, that is, "Jelly omelette!" broke the concentration. In one of those gifted premonitions, Flannery noticed the reader an instant before "Jelly omelette!" was barked, so that she was directly facing the elegant autumn-shaded head and already wondering keenly what the book might be.
The green eyes looked up in an irritated humor, to see who could possibly be the author of such an order.
Flannery saw the reader's eyes, her cat green eyes, and stopped breathing. Never in her lifenot at least since the leaveshad she seen such a heartbreaking color.
To that green glitter of mockeryFlannery's breakfast request was, from an adult, hardly crediblethe hungry girl replied with a smile of embarrassment, an apologetic shrug of the shoulders. I can't help it, Flannery tried to suggest. I don't know what I'm doing. There was no smile in return. The reader's glance- flicker was so brief that Flannery's shoulders were still winced up in their shrug when those eyes turned back to their pages and the serious lips took a deep drag from a cigarette.
Oh. God. Those lips. It was the cigarette that made Flannery notice them, now that the reader's eyes were turned down toward her book. Flannery had nothing to do but watch that mouth smoking, and though she couldn't have said why it was so beautiful or described the thrill of its shapeshe was too young to have anything like a vocabulary for such thingsshe could not stop herself from watching it, shaded a darkish persimmon that left its trace on the cigarette. But the ash was low, Flannery saw, and soon the fine, purposeful fingers were stubbing it out. Flannery looked away quickly, panicked, frightened of further emerald mockery if she was caught staring so unashamedly.
The waitress brought her her orange juice, and Flannery took a great swallow as if it were a shot of vodka. It was fakely sweet and an unlikely color, more like a billboard or paint shade than any real fruit. Its strange flavor made her mouth pucker, and she was relieved that the waitress was soon back with a different taste to replace it: a lightly browned yellow omelette, thrown gracelessly onto a thick white oval plate.
Flannery stared down at it a moment. What had she asked for? What was a jelly omelette, actually? With the side of her fork she tentatively cut into it, a clean slice off the edge. Out of the cut leaked a thick translucent purple, as if she'd hit some alien vein. The purple was, she realized, none other than grape jelly. The purple and yellow textures avoided each other uneasily on the plate. They were not meant for each other: being together did not suit them. Flannery put down her fork and sipped her juice, for courage.
Something made her risk a look at the reader, and she was sure that she saw a telltale dip of the head, as if the woman had just been watching her. Emboldened by the idea, Flannery kept her gaze on the now nonsmoking figure, who took a sip of black coffee. And another. She turned the page. She pursed her lips. (Those lips!) She brushed a lick of deep reddish brown hair behind a delicate ear. She sipped her coffee. Her eyes moved to the next page. Flannery abandoned her omelette and watched the woman drink her coffee. Still, she wanted to know: What was the book?
It worked. The reader's concentration wavered, and finally she looked up, one of her eyebrows raised, an ironic expression.
"Don't like your breakfast?" she asked in a sly voice, so that the waitress could hear. Flannery didn't want to come right out and admit it, so she shrugged again, mutely. Idiotically. "You seem" the reader went on, reaching for another cigarette, "to like the look of my coffee, from the way you're staring. Perhaps you should order a cup for yourself, if that's what you want"
That did it. Flannery flushed from the chest up, a full hot plum of humiliation. She looked away, asked for the check, paid it, and fled the Yankee Doodle. Without looking back. Without waiting for her change.
On the street again, her heart was noisy in her ears, from her fast walk and her embarrassment. Not so noisy, though, that it outbeat the internal words of her silent reply.
It wasn't that she wanted the coffee, no. That wasn't it. Rather, she wanted to be the coffee: she envied the dark drink its chance to taste those lips.
She never should have come here. She did not belong. If Flannery belonged anywherewhich her uneasy skin and awkward, long-legged gait made her doubtit could not possibly be on these busy old university grounds, in a year that had seasons, alongside such sour-souled people. They were all planning to laugh at her, clearly, every single day, until she finally gave in and went back to the land of computers and eucalyptus, where everyone wanted yousincerelyto have a nice day.
"Hey, Flannery!" called a thin-coated ally from across the traffic- blurred street. Another westerner, whom Flannery had met on the first day. They lived on the same floor and shared a crowded bathroom. She was called Cheryl, which made Flannery uneasy, but then with a name like Flannery you could not afford to be choosy. "Are you going to that Intro to Criticism class? It starts in ten minutes?'
"Another new one? Isn't it a bit late by now?" She already felt she'd been here half a lifetime; it had been two weeks.
"Yeah, but the professor's just gotten back. From Paris. Bradley. He's supposed to be great?"
There had been so many beginnings, it seemedwhen would they end? Still: Criticism. It could be what she needed. A weapon. Fight them at their own game. Learn the language of prunes.
"Sure." She fell in step with her half-friend. "Do you think I have time to grab a muffin from the dining hall on the way over?" Her stomach yawned hungrily.
Cheryl checked her watch. "If we hurry" she said. "But didn't I just see you walk out of the Doodle?" "Of the what? Oh yeah, but"
"Better watch it" Cheryl teased. "It's early days to be putting on the freshman fifteen, already?"
The sunny girl playfully reached out to pat Flannery's stomach. It took all the taut self-restraint Flannery had not to slap her.
The first of any class seemed to be a scuffle of papers and faces, a busy fantasy of the great heft of new knowledge that might soon be gained. Flannery had already signed up for a weighty range of subjects: Intro to Art History; Intro to Revolution: France, Russia, China; Intro to World Fiction; Intro to Animal Behavior. Flannery wondered how she would find time for all these introductions.
Perhaps the blazered, grizzled figure at the sloped bottom of the high-windowed room, who leaned what seemed tipsily into the wooden podium, was indeed great. Flannery could certainly not tell from his introduction to this Introduction. He intoned a litany of words that she did not know but could identify as different weeks on the dense syllabus; he fluently pronounced European names whose printed equivalents she could just pick out on the list of required reading. After he had finished his bewildering garble on the material they might all one day be masters of, he mentioned that there were sections to sign up forsupplementary classes run by graduate students who did the grading, explained Cheryl in a cough-drop whisper, as if Flannery didn't already know it. Sections were taught by Bob or Anne, figures who sat in the classroom's front row, backs to the students, raising their weary graduate arms for identification. How to choose between Monday Bob or Tuesday Anne? Like so many of her decisions, Flannery made this one blindly. She chose Anne. Tuesday Anne.
"Goody, I'll pick her, too, then" said Cheryl, holding Flannery's arm.
Flannery held her breath. Intro to Criticism. Here we go. 'Goody,' she practiced quietly, in the privacy of her own thoughts, is not something that we, as college students, any longer say. It makes you sound like a fifth-grader.
Maybe she could get the hang of living here, after all. Would the crafting of such retorts be covered in this basic introductory course?
Days she staggered; but nights she swam free, through the cool waters of her imagination. Her body was relieved in the dark of its shy apologies, and her young hands wandered over her own flesh, as if for the first time. She allowed herself whatever late hours she needed for this discovery, even if it made her sleepy for the next day's Revolution, relying on Coke to power her through the forced labor of note-taking.
How could Flannery be so old and still not know herself? For this seventeen-year-old did feel old. Those private years of intense adolescent reading and music-fueled writing in her journal had made her sure she was full of maturityof a certain unusual, and in its way impressive, emotional self-assurance. She had an alert awareness of what people were like. She'd talked two of her high- school friends through the loss of their virginity, even as she'd held on easily to her own.
Flannery's assurance did not reach to her sexual self. She and her body were only now beginning to speak to each other. Where had she been, she sometimes wondered, when all the other six- and eight-year-olds were busy playing nurse and doctor, undergoing examinations in the shaded end of the garden? Why hadn't her mother ever discovered her and some little friend fondling each other in the closet, so she could spend the right number of years afterward ashamed and still curious? Everyone had these stories, it seemed. The rude older boy who stuck his hand in your jeans. The beer-enhanced groping in junior high that might mean "third base." She'd even have settled, for God's sake, for the solitary horse- back ride through the dusty canyon one afternoon, when the animal's seductive rhythms brought on a hot-faced excitement.
Nothing. None of it. Flannery had been kissed and embraced, she'd been dated and danced with, as any pretty teen might be. There had been park fumbles and party fondles, the unexpected encounter with slobber, and within that encounter a thin, faint hint of excitement. But she'd certainly never known orgasm. She had to read about it first, typically, and had then, curious girl, set out to look for it.
At college, thousands of miles from home and the familiar, under safe cover of darkness, she finally found it. Over and over. Oh! So that's what they meant. Once Flannery found it, she couldn't stop wanting that pleasure, enjoying the sound of her own short breaths in the quiet night air. More. Over. Again. She had to make up for lost years.
Yet, even as she grew ever more learned in this new field of knowledge, she knew that something was missing. She needed someone elsea face, a figureto take with her into the fantasy.
Why was Cheryl always around? Why could Flannery not shake her for the shy Puerto Rican girl on the floor below, who spoke with the low lilt of a poet; or even for bleached, surferish Nick with an earring, whose laughter she often seemed to sit next to while eating, though they'd yet to trade anything besides names and home states and complaints about the mold- ridden dorm rooms?
"Hi, Cheryl." Flannery was too tired to fight it this morning. She'd had a long night: she'd gone to a late screening of a crime caper that starred a feisty black-haired actresswhose leather-clad antics had kept Flannery up, after, back alone in her room. Her stiff fingers plucked now at the cranberries embedded in the top of a sugar-crusted muffin. She needed their vitamin C.
"What are you doing here?" Cheryl stood over her at the table. "Aren't you coming?"
"To what?" Sometimes college seemed merely an endless exhausting string of appointments. She needed a nap already, and it was not yet ten o'clock.
"Section." Cheryl pulled Flannery's sweater. The girl couldn't stop touching her. It was beginning to get out of hand. "For Criticism. Remember?"
"Oh God. Yeah. Thanks for reminding me." Flannery swallowed a few more chunks of cranberry muffin, took a gulp of weak coffee, and cleared her dishes. "Thanks. I'd completely forgotten."
They ambled over to a remote classroom across some foreign lawn. Flannery had to follow Cheryl's lead there. She ought to be grateful to her annoying hallmate, really, for her organization, and to prove that she was, Flannery allowed Cheryl to flutter on chirpily about a date she'd had the night before with a cute Iowan named Doug.
Tuesday Anne. Right. And here it was, Tuesday. If this is Tuesday, it must be Anne, Flannery thought, entertaining herself sleepily with bad jokes of this kind.
Doug was still in the air between them as the two women found the classroom, but for Flannery their entrance was accompanied by a loud internal sound effect.
She had to be Anne, of course: Anne had to be her. Smaller in the large beige classroom, but just as vivid, as mouth-perfect; just as burn-bright. Sitting at the head of a broad seminar table looking through a folder of papers, handing a sheaf to a student on her right to pass around, giving Flannery a moment to look at her.
She had the same serenely clear skin, the same slick red-dark hair, straight to her chin. And she wore the same outfit. Black leather jacket, in a cut trim and feminine rather than motorcycle- like, silver-zippered in a few strategic places; close-fitting blue jeans, studiously faded; pointed, pretty, argumentative boots. Not high-heeled or spiky, and not black eithera deep animal brownbut certainly the kind that were made for walking. They brought a Nancy Sinatra shiver to Flannery's hunched shoulders.
She stopped in the doorway, before she'd been seen. "I can't... I forgot..." she stuttered to Cheryl.
"What? Come on. This is the right room. I recognize the lady."
That's no lady, Flannery wanted to say, but she kept quiet as Cheryl dragged her over to a corner chair. At least the closer seats were filled, so they could sit farther away, near the window. If worse came to worst, Flannery could always jump out of it. The act might have a certain poetry. Might reveal, all too late, her sensitivity to Criticism.
It had to happen. Once seated, Flannery tried to busy herself with her educational equipment, but all she really needed was a notebook and a pen. She placed these in front of her. Someone handed her another printed sheet of paper, which listed due dates for papers, Anne's office hours, the exam schedule. It had to happen. There was nowhere else to turn. Flannery finally looked up.
And there she was, her tormentor, watching Flannery cannily with her glorious green eyes.