Before you tell me it was inappropriate to contact you, before you remind me it all happened a long time ago, before you suggest I’m embittered by my lack of success – have you heard all the facts?
A decade ago I enrolled in a low-ranked graduate program in creative writing at a Midwestern university. The annual tuition and fees totaled $18,666. I received no funding from the school. My mother earned $26,000 a year. I got a job at the Dining Commons and took out a student loan, which, ten years later, I am nowhere close to paying off.
It was not my first loan. I still owed plenty on what I’d borrowed for undergrad. I’d heard that if you went back to school, you could pause the monthly payments on existing debt. And my secret wish was to be a writer. I can’t remember what shape, exactly, ambition made inside me; but I knew I had some, and it was thrilling.
Members of the committee, I am bitter, it’s true. But this doesn’t change the facts.
My first term in the program, I was too scared to register for a fiction workshop. I fulfilled my literature requirements instead. I kept my studio apartment clean. I made the loan money stretch farther by stealing food during my shifts at the Dining Commons – not difficult, once I figured out who could be trusted. I went days without speaking to anyone except my salad-station customers, most of them girls. I watched them register the disharmony between me and the celery, me and the spinach leaves. How could someone who looked like that sell salad? wondered their slender, wilting brains.
In December I stocked up on dry goods (nuts, cereals, tortilla chips) to get me through winter break.
Spring term, I forced myself to take a workshop. Ten of us sat in a circle while Professor Sedgwick paced the perimeter or stood at the blackboard, chalking rules: refrain from the givens and if your nerve, deny you – go above your nerve – . Thaddeus, as he told us to call him, was a tall white man with sandy hair cut short above a high, smooth forehead. He looked like a surfer too long away from the sun.
The first story I submitted was about a woman who tries to count every hair on her body. It began: ‘Pluck three hairs from the loaf of your pubis. Put them on your tongue. A not-now girl’s hair tastes more mineral than a not-yet’s.’
Thaddeus hated the story. It reeked of the precious, he said – pathology du jour – and I had a terrible command of hyphenation.
Romy and I lived in the same rotten apartment building. She was a second-year, full of advice. Make sure to take Professor Unthank’s Poetry of Horror class. Don’t walk past the frat houses after dark. Don’t let Thaddeus pay for your drinks after workshop at the Swan with Two Necks.
‘Although you won’t have to worry,’ she said.
‘You’re not – his type.’
‘Super-pretty, in, like, a delicate way? And brown.’
(Committee, I am white.)
‘Did he buy your drinks?’
‘I’m not delicate,’ Romy said.
‘You are delicate!’
Romy was thirty but wore her black hair in pigtails wrapped with twist ties, and went around in a coat made of fake rabbit fur. She was from Los Angeles and (she confessed one night when drunk) kind of rich. ‘Kind of rich?’ I tried not to seem angry, because I wanted us to be friends. She hadn’t received funding either, but it was no problem for her parents to cover the tuition and fees. They would have helped her rent a nice apartment, but Romy had insisted on the Lion Arms because she wanted the experience of living in a shithole. Her grandparents (she said before throwing up a little, into her hand) worked themselves to the bone in code-violating restaurants so that she could choose to live in a shithole.
I checked Thaddeus’s first novel, Lategoers, out of the library. It was neither terrible nor good. (I haven’t read his newest, the one getting all the ‘buzz’.) Then I churned out twenty-two pages of something similar.
She reached for the young deer as if to caress its tenderling, but instead of petting the antler bud she brought her fist down onto it. When the brothers came home, pissed as Baptists, they found the animal dead on the yard stones.
I added a few of my own swerves and flourishes for disguise, and called the story ‘I Will Make You Regret It’. Though it wasn’t due for another week, I emailed it to Thaddeus. Would love to hear your thoughts, before I distribute?
The next day he left the following letter in my department mailbox:
Bravo. Just bravo.
Or is it brava, in your case? I can’t remember and am too drunk to locate a dictionary, ha, joking, I’m not (too) drunk but the wind is up and the bald cypress are shaking like the devil’s seeds, which keeps me at the typewriter. I see no need to give you any so-called feedback, any bloodless little grocery list of omissions and errors: because your story is beautiful. I’m sort of in love with your story. I come from the mountains, too, did you know that? I come from people who can’t pronounce ‘banal’. When your narrator says, ‘Leave me to myself in the hollow,’ I know precisely what the hell she means.
I read a few paragraphs to my wife. She’s a lowlander but was impressed all the same. Can we meet to talk about this marvel?
The sentence ‘I’m sort of in love with your story’ thrust a wet wire deep into my chest, where it sizzled and twitched.
At the bottom of the letter he’d added, in red pen: ‘Not at the Swan. Mind coming to chez Sedgwick? Sat 5 p.m.?’ He typically held conferences at the Swan with Two Necks, because his campus office smelled like work and as for meeting in a coffee shop – what were we, teenagers?
I took a bus to an outskirts neighborhood with lawns and no sidewalks. Thaddeus’s address was a sweet-looking bungalow situation. He had mentioned in class that the house was a rental. I found out later it was owned by Thaddeus’s wife – who had a name, though I never once heard him use it.
He opened the door in his pale blue sweatshirt, jeans and bare feet. ‘Hey, hey. Come on back. You want a beer?’
‘No thank you.’
On our quick march through the dining room, I saw a wall of photographs, all of the same red-haired, narrow-faced woman. Thaddeus was hugging her in a few of the shots, but mostly it was just the woman, this stern white flamingo, apparently conceited enough to want fifty versions of herself on display.
Beyond the kitchen was a glassed-in porch, where a typewriter rested on a butcher block, facing a yard of crooked trees.
I sat on the hard pink wadding of a wicker sofa. My teacher straddled an office chair, swiveled to face me, and rested his chin on the chair-back.
‘You wrote such a beautiful story,’ he said.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
‘I mean, holy fuck, Eleanor. It hits on all sixes. So much better than your Anne-Carson-in-a-locked-ward nonsense. Where you from?’
‘Monroe County, Ohio.’
He grinned. ‘A fellow Appalachian.’
‘Yep,’ I said.
Thaddeus nodded. The chair was so close I could make out the white star at the center of a red pimple above his eyebrow.
He said, ‘I’m going to nominate you for the Cravaack.’
‘If you’re from Monroe County, I know you’ve never seen that kind of money in your life.’ The Cravaack Prize is $10,000. ‘Whereas all those Shitty von Shatsteins in your cohort – like, what’s his name, Zach?’ Thaddeus shook his head. ‘You hear he just bought a new Prius? Factory-fresh? That kid is fucking twenty-three! My dad paid our rent in cash. Every month. Didn’t trust banks, so he kept his money in the chest freezer.’
‘Smart,’ I said, thinking of Romy’s face: By the way? I won the Cravaack.
Thaddeus frowned. ‘I also hope, Eleanor, that you’re able to understand your weight problem in the context of poverty. It’s a systemic epidemic, not just individual weakness. I saw it all the time back home. God, the stigma. Being fat and poor, as a woman? You’re double-fucked.’
I am typing this part slowly, wishing to nail each word to the page exactly as it came out of his mouth. When I made my statement to the university lawyer, I spoke slowly. Being fat and poor. She taped it on a whirring recorder. As a woman.
‘I’d like to see you harness that pain,’ Thaddeus continued. ‘The double-fuckedness. You gesture at it but never go there. What does it feel like, for instance, to be sitting here across from a six-foot-two adult male with good muscle tone, and know that you weigh more than he does?’
I stared at him.
‘Not a rhetorical question,’ he said. ‘What does it feel like?’
By the way I won the Cravaack. Won the Cravaack won the Cravaack.
‘If you’re going to be an artist, you cannot be afraid of shit like this.’ Thaddeus yawned and clasped his hands together, stretched his arms out in front of him. The interlaced fingers came to rest on my right shoulder.
What had happened to all the words I knew?
The fingers were pressing, thudding, into my collarbone. His pale blue sweatshirt sleeve smelled of the same detergent my mother used.
Won the Cravaack.
He said softly, leaning forward, ‘Do mountain girls like it vertical?’
I lowered my shoulder until the fingers slid off. ‘Sorry, but, um.’
‘God, joking.’ He swiveled away, slapped his palms on the butcher block. ‘Your title is melodramatic. Change it before you pass out copies to the class, okay?’
He was staring through the glass at the bald cypress. I pulled on my coat and left.
Having missed the last bus into town, I had to walk for nearly an hour. My mouth tasted like blood. The taste was worth it, I decided, because of the nomination. My entry would be due soon. I’d need to come up with a new title, and maybe cut the part about raccoons being ground up in the diner’s burger meat.
‘What the fuck, girl?’ Romy stood on the front steps of the Lion Arms, in her fake rabbit coat. She took one last suck of a cigarette and threw it on the frozen lawn. ‘Your face is weird. Are you crying?’
‘It’s sweat,’ I said.
‘It’s like ten degrees out.’
‘I was exercising. Pardon me.’ I stepped around her, brought out my key.
‘Good night?’ she yelled after me.
I kept the Cravaack to myself for days – did not even call my mother. I wrote generous comments on Zach’s workshop story. I went shopping in an actual supermarket, picking out things you couldn’t get at the Dining Commons: clove-studded chocolate, artichoke hearts, pesto in a tube. After I had paid for my delicacies, I steered outside and waited while a woman with gray curls and a neon pink visor tried to nudge her cart back into the row. It refused to fit. Kept snagging, misaligning.
I finally said, ‘You need to really slam it.’
‘I will not do violence,’ she muttered, backing away.
I slammed hers and mine in together.
On the first warm day of spring, headed to campus under a flame-blue sky, I told Romy the news. She stopped walking. Squinted at the air right above my head.
‘Is a professor allowed to nominate more than one student?’
‘No,’ I said.
A small, stony laugh came out of her. She swung her arms in big circles until her backpack fell off. Stooping to retrieve it, she said, ‘He nominated me, too.’
‘But – that’s not possible.’
Romy shrugged. ‘He cc’ed me on the email to them.’
I had not been cc’ed on any goddamn email.
‘For the nurse novel?’
‘Try not to sound shocked as fuck, Eleanor.’
The discussion of my story, whose title was now ‘Tenderling’, lasted barely half an hour. Thaddeus said nothing at all – a signal to my classmates they were free to pile on.
‘I’m troubled by the stereotyping of Appalachian culture.’
‘Okay, so the deer’s symbolic, but of fucking what?’
‘This feels kind of derivative.’
I stared at the fingers that had rested on my shoulder. All the nails on his left hand had crescents of brown dirt under them. The right-hand nails were clean. Thaddeus didn’t wear a wedding ring, because artists had a duty to refrain from the givens.
Romy pointed out the beauty of certain images, such as the bruised antler bud and the narrator counting the wings of dead flies while she crouched in her hiding place. But before she could cite a third example, Thaddeus cut in: ‘I think we’ve said what needs to be said. Let’s call it a night. I’ll be posting up at the Swan, if anyone wants to join.’
‘The first assignment you turned in for Professor Sedgwick’s class,’ said the university lawyer, glancing down at a thickness of papers, ‘involved the consumption of pubic hair. Did you intend for this to be provocative?’
‘As in thought-provoking?’
‘As in sexually.’
‘Just because the hair is near a sexual organ doesn’t mean it’s sexual hair.’
‘Okay, calm down,’ said the lawyer. ‘I have to ask.’
I was calm, except at the salad station, where the knife kept slipping. Some blood found its way onto the corn niblets. I thought the red drops relieved the boredom of the yellow, but my supervisor did not agree.
There was no official investigation. The university lawyer scheduled a ‘conciliation session’ at which Thaddeus and I sat at either end of a huge, shining table. The lawyer sat at one of the long sides, with a tape recorder, and some sort of dean was hunched on a stool by the door.
I explained, again, what had happened.
Fat and poor. Fingers. Not a very friendly mountain girl.
Thaddeus, who had not even dressed up – who had come in his goddamn blue sweatshirt – looked at the lawyer, then looked at me.
Do you sincerely believe, his gaze seemed to say, I would force myself on that?
The lawyer coughed.
Sweat gushed down my rib cage, into the creases, every hair drowned and uncountable.
Members of the committee, have any of you ever been that?
No matter what the dean’s internal memo claims, I did inquire, at the conciliation session, about filing charges. At which point the lawyer said, ‘According to Professor Sedgwick, you were threatening him. You were angry that he didn’t nominate you for the award.’
‘Not true.’ I looked at Thaddeus, who looked back at me with zero expression.
‘The professor has provided us with a copy of an email he received, dated March fourth of this year.’
The lawyer walked around the table to hand me a piece of paper, on which was printed the email to which I’d attached my second workshop story. Except there was no attachment, and no message. There was only the subject line – ‘I Will Make You Regret It’ – above an empty body, a block of throbbing white.
‘This was sent from your university account.’
‘Oh my God,’ I said.
‘So you see . . .’ The lawyer tucked the paper back into its manila folder.
Before you tell me it’s my own fault for not protesting harder, for not making the lawyer understand – do you think I don’t already know that?
Thaddeus Sedgwick grew up, I have since discovered, in New Jersey. Kittatinny Mountain may technically belong to the Appalachian Range, but its residents can get to a Manhattan restaurant in less than two hours.
And I am from Cincinnati: hilly, but hardly mountainous.
My mother picked me up at the airport in her rattling Jeep with the i can go on a diet but you’ll be ugly forever! bumper sticker.
When we hugged, I smelled Thaddeus in her purple fleece vest.
‘That’s a lot of luggage,’ she said.
‘I’m back for good.’
I reached for the Minnie Mouse sunglasses she kept in the glovebox and put them on. My explanation was true as far as it went: I had left the program because it was too expensive.
I didn’t mention my teacher, or what I’d done to Romy.
The day before I dropped out of grad school, I walked to campus to return all my books. The fines had begun to mount. On a bench outside the library sat a woman who looked a lot like the photos in Thaddeus’s house: blotchless white skin, red hair in a ponytail, body thin to the point of Hmmm. The bell-bottoms of her black dress pants flapped in the prairie wind.
I went up and asked for the time.
The lowlander raised her eyes from her phone. ‘Almost five.’ Noticing my three plastic bags, strained to bursting: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll make it.’
‘Thanks so much.’ I kept standing there.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘You just look familiar.’
‘Well, I teach here.’
‘Does your husband teach here, too?’
Her face tightened. ‘I don’t have a husband.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I mean – not sorry that you don’t have a husband, but –’
‘Got it,’ she said, and stood up and walked away.
A bed of my own making, one therapist called it.
‘You invited special attention from your professor by all but plagiarizing his work; you claimed a false regional identity; you spread a vindictive rumor about your best friend sleeping with your professor in exchange for a prize nomination.’
‘She wasn’t my best friend –’
‘Can you choose to see your complicity here, Eleanor? Your own role in this drama?’
‘Um, what?’ I said to the therapist I would choose never to see again.
The committee may fault this letter for its omissions. I have not, for instance, described myself. I have not invited the reader into the sensations of this mooring of flesh – what it feels like to live as that. But why, in fact, should I bother? Why make the effort to narrate my body, to name its terms and conditions, when the rest of the world is happy to do it for me?
‘You would look cuter,’ Romy once said, ‘in vertical stripes.’
‘Horizontal’s my thing,’ I told her.
She didn’t win the Cravaack that year, but she managed to publish, in a small magazine called Textscraper, the first chapter of her novel about student nurses in Los Angeles. In the draft we read for workshop, the villain was a spiteful anesthesiologist known as Jimmy. In the published version, the anesthesiologist’s name is Eleanor.
Members of the committee, do you know what it feels like to be fucked if you do and double-fucked if you don’t? I’m aware of your names and credentials, but not whether, or how much, you care about the facts. Your book prize, one of the nation’s most prestigious, pays more than the Cravaack but less than what I owe on my student loans. Among the current finalists is Thaddeus Sedgwick, and I am wondering what can be done to correct this.
Before you say stop lecturing us, bitter fat girl, stop gnawing your twig of resentment, stop blaming your debt and obesity and failure to publish on a talented novelist who’s finally getting his due – let me ask you: should it matter that I’m not as sympathetic a character as one might hope? That I’m even, dare I say, off-putting? A victim is supposed to be virtuous. A damaged angel. Would it be easier to decide what to do about Thaddeus if you had a better idea of how damaged I am?
I still live in Cincinnati, where I work at Buckeye Coffee, or the DMV. I have three children, or I am childless. My cats adore me, or my cats are all dead. Did I stop writing fiction altogether? Do I create social media aliases so I can keep track of Romy and Thaddeus and Prius-buying Zach? I guess I don’t think it matters so much who I am. That is: what if I’d gone on to wild literary success? What if I were stomping through the book world like a goddamn queen? Would that change what Thaddeus did?
There’s one fact you can be sure of. My favorite part of the week, the moment I’m happiest and most myself, is at the grocery store, when I return my shopping cart to its metal-railed slot.
When I shove it as fast and as hard as I can.
Artwork by Terry Frost, Black Moon and Ochre, 1997, © The estate of Sir Terry Frost, courtesy of Flowers Gallery