Something pulled my mind back to St. Louis, to the middle chunk of the 1970s when I stumbled around the campus of St. Louis University pretending to be self-assured. Whether my throwback resulted from the disturbing news that a friend from that time died eight months ago without my having known, or from my recent trip to Stanford with its mixed bag of predictions, I cannot say. But here I sit: the small needlepoint cushion of my chair hard beneath me, the lovely bones of the secretary rising above me, but my focus blurred, my mind pulled away.
It's 1976; September. The colorless room around me holds folding tables, metal chairs, posters, piles of pamphlets. I'm not on the Student Council but I'm in its office. The Student Body President, Jim Foster, has recruited me and others to work on one of his projects. I'm not there because of any passion about the subject. I'm a hanger-on. I'm the skinny girl with the mass of brown hair chunked around her face and the awkward clothes. I'm the senior who has not done much for herself: mediocre-plus grades not good enough for honors but not terrible; non-speaking parts in drama productions, during one of which I had to be rushed to the hospital because of a nearly-fatal spider bite; the girl who will always drive, who never has a date, who walks across campus with her head down to avoid the stares.
Donna Pilla sprawls on the table-top of a student desk beside me. We've known each other for a while; we went to the same high school. I like her but am secretly jealous. She holds her body in an easy way, assured, confident. No task confounds her; no male's presence flusters her. She has bone-straight hair, dark like mine but streaked with natural highlights. She flips her bangs back in ways that I can never emulate.
We're talking about the future. Our graduation date looms -- spring 1977, although in the end, I will bolt a semester early. But I have not yet elected early-graduation. Right now we're talking about what we'll do after we have our degrees. I have few options. I derailed a special education teaching career by dropping the requisite Ed. courses. By sheer virtue of accumulation, I have managed to cobble together a major in Psychology with a minor in Political Science though the school does not actually recognize minors. If I stayed through May, I could switch majors to Philosophy because I had a crush on a professor in that department and exceeded the required three courses. I took eight, getting an A in every one. Two more would put me in major-range.
But I want out. I've had enough of the booze, the parties, and the pretending. Panic rises every time I wake, competing with my hang-overs to cripple me. I cling to the edge of the precipice not knowing why I have not yet hurled myself over.
Donna stretches her legs over the back of the desk and lifts her arms above her head, rolling her shoulders. I sit in another desk, straight-backed, rigid. "I think we might be early," she says. Then she looks at me. "So, you applying to grad school?"
I shrug. I don't admit that I haven't thought about my career. Her eyes stay on my face. "I see you as a writer," she tells me. "I see you years from now, in an apartment in New York, in bed, a typewriter on your lap, writing stories and poetry. You won't be able to walk but it won't matter. Your writing will be famous and everybody will want to know you."
She slides off the desk and wanders around the room, moving a book, fiddling with a shade at the window, stacking a pile of brochures that had slid onto the floor. She shakes her clothes on her body in an easy movement, settling them back into their casual drape. I do not speak; I do not move. I do not betray myself by letting my tears fall.
"I've always seen you like that," she continues. "Maybe I'm a romantic." She laughs while I fight the rise of bile. I force myself to meet her gaze, hold my eyes steady, wait for more. But just then, the door bursts open and a small crowd comes through: Jim and his friends, out of class, ready to get started, loud, laughing. And Donna turns away.
I go into the bathroom and vomit for fifteen minutes. I don't come out until cold water has restored whatever composure I carried into the place. I use water from the sink's meager flow to smooth the veil of hair that shelters me. I hold my wrists under the faucet until my pulse throbs. When I finally come out, Donna and the gaggle of guys have gone; only Jim Foster remains.
"There you are," he remarks. "We thought you left. We saved you a list of places to take these pamphlets." He holds out a stack surrounded by a rubber band. I take the bundle and the assignment sheet, and turn to go. Jim calls my name, and I halt but do not look back.
"You okay?" he asks. I have no answer.
Nearly four decades have slipped away since that September. I don't know where any of the people whom I knew then live -- St. Louis, I imagine. Jim went to law school; I don't know about Donna. I left that place in December 1976 and began my journey to here, to now. Donna got it wrong. I can still walk and nobody wants to know me. Few people read what I write. And I don't own a typewriter.
But I'm still that girl. In the cold of the autumn morning, with my doors opened wide to let the air find its way through the house so I can breathe, I sense her in every fiber of my being: that girl who joined committees looking for meaning; the girl who fled a pre-teaching session because she could not bear the site of all the handicapped children; the girl who tried to act, to volunteer, to lose herself in sex and alcohol and the loud music in the summer quad.
The girl who found herself bent over a bathroom sink retching from fear that she had no greater fate than loneliness.
I make no apology for telling the story of who I was then
and who I am now.
I speak so that others will understand --
understand the face in the mirror or the face at the window.
I speak so the man on the platform
might hope to understand
the glimpse of the passenger whose forehead
touches the glass on the train,
as it trundles by in the night.
I speak for those who cannot bear to open their mouths
and can only stand silent.