The following story "The Language of Cats and Dogs" is from Susan Minot's collection of stories Why I Don't Write. Susan Minot's first novel, Monkeys, was published in a dozen countries and won the Prix Femina Étranger in France. Her novel Evening was a worldwide best seller and became a major motion picture. She received her MFA from Columbia University and lives with her daughter in New York City and on an island off the coast of Maine.
“Let’s speak in a language any cat or dog could understand,” said the man.
She sat in the passenger seat, facing forward, unmoving. Through the dust-mottled windshield she saw a newly constructed park with squared-off areas of light green grass. She did not look to her left at the man behind the wheel. To look would somehow be to accept the ridiculous and yet rattling thing he’d just said. She was twenty then, a young woman, though she still thought of herself as, and called herself, a girl. Her heart was hammering her chest.
This happened a long time ago.
The image of her frozen in the fish tank of his littered car would remain intact for forty years.
It was her final week of college, the man was her professor.
But how had they gotten in the car?
Years later when she looked back with more than a cursory glance, she couldn’t remember many of the details. She and the professor must have walked after class to his car parked nearby. She could however pinpoint the time. It had been the last class of the semester. She would be graduating in a week. Four months before, her mother had been killed in a car accident, leaving behind seven children and a husband.
You think you are done with an experience once it is over and it is set into some version in a story. And there it will sit. But if you return to the experience many years later, because you are, say, urged by a movement in the culture to re-examine the treatment of women, an examination which seems to come every fifty years or so before it fades away again, then go, you might discover new details waiting for you, unnoticed.
What you do not know when you’re young is that you may, as your life goes on, return to things that happened, and that the more you visit a thing, the more time you spend experiencing it—in reflection, in memory—so that an event which took, say, an hour in your life may afterward be recalled and visited by you fifty times over, each time you remember it. Moments of happiness, such as the period one fell in love, may be remembered again and again, weeks’ worth if it was a really compelling thing to think about. And moments when one was shocked might be similarly preserved, not voluntarily, and exist as a freeze-frame.
When the last class ended the students in R. M. Tower’s graduate writing workshop would have stood up from the long wooden table, scraping their chairs. Sophie did retain over the years the impression of the professor sort of ignoring a male student attempting to say goodbye to him and instead calling to her as she reached the door.
Miss Vincent, he had said. Please wait. He had something to ask her. And she’d waited by the exit, feeling the gaze of a few students slide knowingly over her. Well, she said to herself, she had nothing to be secretive about. Honestly. So what if Merlon Tower was an old-school somewhat lecherous nut? She couldn’t help that.
Once the classroom was empty, he asked her if she’d like a ride home.
That’s okay, she said. I’m not far.
He persisted as they began down the stairs. Had she seen the new park by the river?
What river? she said.
No? he said, throwing up his hands. He was like a conductor when he taught, using his body and sweeping gestures to accentuate his points. She was about to graduate, he said in his gravelly voice, and she had not even seen the river?
Though an undergraduate, Sophie had been allowed into the graduate class on Mr. Tower’s special say-so. She had taken his writing workshop the year before, sitting in kidney-shaped desk-and-chair sets, listening to him rant and rave—against the administration, against a culture that didn’t appreciate good writing, against the pressure to conform.
Think! Think! he told his students. Don’t accept what is presented to you!
Question it all!
The messages they have been giving you are wrong! Take nothing on faith.
He was a published author—essays, articles, even books— impressive to an undergraduate. Sophie had first signed up for his class aware he also had a reputation for being one of those guys. He’d written a famous article in a prominent men’s magazine called “Up the Down Coed” in which he highlighted what he saw as the inevitable dynamic between a red-blooded professor and his nubile female students. She had not read the essay—in fact, she didn’t know anyone who actually had—but his point apparently was that people shouldn’t expect people not to be human! In a time when females were seizing rights long-oppressed for the equality they deserved—something which was so obvious to Sophie she was surprised it needed pointing out—Tower’s renegade attitude was outrageous and even radical, in its way.
No, it wasn’t his finest hour, but he turned out to be an inspiring teacher—one who didn’t care what anyone thought. In fact, that’s what he banged on about. Be yourself! Your voice is the only one you’ve got! No one’s going to stick up for your work but you! So if Sophie recognized something creepy, she ignored it—that wasn’t the part of R. M. Tower that she experienced.
In class he had roamed the front of the classroom in a tattered tweed jacket and rumpled unbuttoned shirt, his head like that of a scarred lion, with jowls and pockmarked skin, a rubbery mouth and popping eyes and tobacco-stained teeth, ranting against the “expected ways” and the deadening “educational factory lines.” He sang the praises of the beautiful sentence and the original stylist.
Tell us what you see! he bellowed.
He radiated radical sparks in a number of directions—from challenging narrative convention to boycotting faculty meetings for the small percentage of black colleagues. In class, he had been encouraging to Sophie about her writing—stream-of-consciousness stories both playful and melancholy—and at the end of her junior year suggested rather offhandedly that she take his graduate workshop; her work was good enough.
In the graduate class they sat at a long table in a room on an upper floor with a large paned window, like a solarium.
One winter day he’d come into class with a long arrow from a bow under his arm. It wasn’t quite a child’s arrow, but it wasn’t a hardy real arrow either. Tower began talking about Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry” with the famous line of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
He lifted the arrow, speaking with mounting enthusiasm of the poetic “bow,” representing the imagination, and to demonstrate the realness of the arrow (like the toad?) he snapped the arrowhead off its stem. The class watched as he slid the triangular arrowhead like a shuffleboard disk down the wooden table rather deliberately to where Sophie sat in front of her open notebook. She touched the arrow as if to complete the demonstration that it was indeed real, and left it sitting there. The whole class seemed to wince a little, even as they smiled.
They moved on to the discussion of the story that week, a story about a woman who accidentally kills an old man sleeping under her car, the tragedy of which registered weakly with Sophie. Her state of mind was so steeped in thoughts of loss and death that any depiction of its being remarkable or upsetting were tin in her ear.
Next to her at the table, a long-armed student named Keith Ferris who wrote stories about buffoonish fellows in improbable situations had idly picked up the arrow and throughout the class jiggled it in his shaky fingers, used it as a drumstick, tossed it like a cat playing with a mouse.
When class was over and everyone rose, Mr. Tower barked out from the end of the table. Mr. Ferris! Have you taken the arrow intended for Miss Vincent?
A few leaving students glanced back with interest. Keith Ferris stammered, Ah, ah . . . no.
Students now looked away, not wanting to witness someone having his knuckles rapped. Sophie saw Keith blush, and felt mortified.
Here, Keith said, not meeting Sophie’s eye, and deposited the arrow on top of the notebook she had just closed. She slid notebook and arrow into her black canvas bag.
As she made for the door she noticed Mr. Tower, under the guise of observing the filing out of students, shoot her a bland but meaningful look which she pretended she did not see, and therefore did not have to acknowledge.
The May afternoon was bright and cool with a low breeze as she and Merlon Tower walked on the uneven brick sidewalk past brittle lilacs gone brown in their rich green hedges.
A fine green net was thrown over the upper branches of spreading trees; pink petals rolled in the gutters.
Did they walk side by side? Mr. Tower probably carried his unclosed briefcase with papers sticking up, pressed against his open tweed coat, maybe securing with his other arm more sliding books or a bound manuscript with a clear cover.
She didn’t remember.
She did remember what she was wearing—a loose sundress to her knee, lilac colored, with cap sleeves and square-necked smocking.
It might have been awkward walking beside Mr. Tower, but she would probably not have felt it so much. Though it had been four months earlier when her mother had died, Sophie was still in shock. On an icy morning in January, her mother had been driving down the avenue where they lived on the winding coast north of Boston on her way to an exercise class. When her car crossed the familiar railroad tracks, it had been struck like a bull’s-eye by the train going by. The crossing signals had failed to work, having been frozen in an ice storm the night before. She’d been killed instantly.
Sophie had taken two weeks off from school, staying at home with her six siblings and disoriented father. There’d been a blizzard and a parade of friends and casseroles, sleepless nights and cigarettes and rueful jokes. There were the younger siblings to worry about. She returned having only four months till graduation, so the idea of stopping before the finish line, so to speak, was never raised, even if she felt that school now had turned thoroughly meaningless—she had often felt it meaningless, but it turned out she’d no idea how meaningless something could actually be!—and she floated through her classes in a numb air of shock. When she’d heard the news on the phone it had torn a hole in her and she went immediately hard and did not cry. If she let herself feel, the part of her that was left would be riddled with holes and there’d be nothing left. She had not, since then, shed a tear. Her body shut down; to allow feeling would sink her.
So she attended classes which were thoroughly altered now, as if a water wash had brushed over everything, streaking lines and pulling the color out.
Grief turned out to be slow moving. Situations which at another time would be anxious-making were far less so now. What did anything matter? What could possibly be worrisome? She would, therefore, have been less nervous than usual to walk with Mr. Tower to his car.
They might have talked about what she planned to do after graduation or maybe about her family situation.
When she looked back she could remember little of that spring, of her classes. She remembered seeing the movie The Battle of Algiers and being shaken by it, the war depicted with such horror she was able to feel that. She remembered the classes with Mr. Tower because writing was something she cared about. She felt, though, suspended, as if she’d stepped off a seaside cliff, but for some miraculous reason had not plunged down to the rocks and surf, but continued merely to walk in the air over the great drop beneath her.
Eventually they arrived at a small beaten-up car—a Datsun?— tipped on the hill. Sophie paid little attention to cars. Waiting by the passenger door while Mr. Tower unlocked the driver’s side, she had looked in the back, surprised by the mess. It was bucket deep in aluminum soda cans, glass bottles, and wrappers, and its back seat was scattered with paperbacks, files, flattened jackets, empty potato-chip bags. Inside, Mr. Tower reached across the front seat and unlocked her door, a gesture for a split second oddly intimate. But so many things were odd then. She was seeing, in fact, that things being weird were far more plentiful than things being normal. She was aware that this revelation now prevented her from being constantly surprised or charmed, as she used to be, by weird and unexpected things. She opened her door. It was quiet inside and smelled of stale smoke and rotten apple cores and cigarette butts.
Though it’s just as possible that as they walked to his car, Merlon Tower had talked about some injustice or some thing he was outraged by. And that the car was unlocked, as it could have been in those days.
Sophie remembered getting in and the too-close smell, but she did not remember the drive. The night before, she also remembered, she’d pulled an all-nighter, finishing a paper, it being the last week of school, and she had been feeling that spaciness of no sleep and of sandy eyes when your body feels either a little heavier or a little lighter, depending on how the fatigue is hitting you.
Then somehow they arrived there, in the parking area of a refurbished park. There was a new concrete promenade and a breeze making the newly planted saplings shiver.
An esplanade ran along a river which she had seen as they drove in but could not see now. Mr. Tower reached behind his seat and fished around in all the crap back there. He pulled out a silver flask and unscrewed the top. He took a swig. Did he really just do that? she thought feeling a trapdoor drop inside her. A swig?
She remembered thinking at least she was not wearing anything sexy. It wasn’t her leotard or a short skirt with boots. Had she ever worn either to class? God, maybe she had. Then she remembered she’d worn her leotard with her green tiered peasant skirt to their student-teacher conference—as the meetings were weirdly called—when she’d gone to his actual house the one time. And that, now that she thought about it, had frankly been weird. But then it was always peculiar to see a teacher outside the classroom in the real world. Seeing them join the banal world, they would turn more banal in it.
He lived about a half mile from campus. The house was relatively large, painted gray shingles, in the style of the city, on a rise above the sidewalk, with a lawn swelling up from a low stone wall. A cement walkway banked with shrunken snowbanks led to an echoing porch. Sophie had rung the doorbell and gotten no response. Narrow paned windows on either side of the door showed the sheen of a wooden hall inside. Dim natural light came from windows another room away. She knocked then on the black door and waited. After a while a shadow inside darkened the floor sheen.
The heavy door was opened and in front of her stood a teenage girl with an unimpressed expression, light brown hair parted on the side. She was wearing a light blue Fair Isle sweater with the snowflake design around the neck, in contrast to her dead eyes. Sophie said hi, and that she was there to see her father.
The girl swung her head like a horse and stepped back. I’ll let him know someone’s here, she said, and gestured for her to wait in the room across from them. Gloom in the hall, winter light on a dark green sofa which Sophie approached and sat on. Another figure passed in the hall going the other way, a younger traipsing boy—the son—who didn’t glance at her, used to seeing students in the house. Or girls. Sophie felt a wave of creepiness. His “Up the Down Coed” now seemed more condemning, here in his house. Then she immediately dismissed it, rejecting herself as being part of any cliché. And, really, Mr. Tower was like a troll, and old.
Another person’s heeled footsteps entered the hall, continuing the feeling that she was an exhibit being viewed by a parade of family members. This time it was the wife clicking by. Was her name Joan? Sophie vaguely knew she was a writer, too, with her own last name. She wore a narrow skirt above heavy calves, and a cardigan sweater, with her hair up in a twist. She paused in the hallway, not stepping toward the arched entryway.
Hello, the wife said, holding a cigarette piquantly at her jaw.
Does he know you’re here? Even in the shadow Sophie felt the appraising look.
I think so, she said. Your daughter let me in.
The wife lifted her chin and dropped it conclusively and walked blithely away.
Sophie resisted the urge to get up and leave.
Where was he anyway. And why was he making her wait?
A girl was used to creepiness from men. The leer from the guy at the newsstand, the crude comment from some jerk standing at the bus stop. One felt a prickly buzz in the bloodstream. One learned to ignore it, and to drop it as quickly as possible.
Sophie did admire the girls who were able to spar back to the rude whistle with a snappy line. Showing outrage sometimes made you feel you weren’t so vulnerable.
More than feeling danger or finding insult, Sophie was intrigued by the fact that simply by being female, regardless of personality or size or even age, you were a target for the random shot of—she wasn’t sure what to call it—male aggression? Expression? Joy? Scorn?
Sometimes she could see an expression of desire, crass as it was, and that was intriguing. She’d learned early on that desire contained some of life’s more magical and fascinating aspects. And she had experienced desire enough to know that the transports of sex were pleasures of the highest inexplicable order. So it was eerily breathtaking when men showed boldness in this department. Of course, her body did not register the boldness that way. At the first sign of any affront, her body would register it as danger—not intrigue or wonder—and its defenses would kick in.
Bottom line, she learned that a girl alone should be on guard. What was he doing in there?
She sat in the winter dusk on his stupid couch. Finally he appeared in the doorway, ragged-headed, looking shorter. She’d only seen him in the classroom, up close.
Miss Vincent, he said. There you are, he added as if he’d been the one waiting. Come along this way then.
Carrying her coat and canvas bag, she followed him through more darkness down the hall to a study walled with bookshelves and with a block of a desk behind which Mr. Tower seated himself. A bay window faced out on the front lawn farther down from where she’d come in, and an occasional car hummed by on the white salted road. She had walked there on a sidewalk pocked with holes cut out of dirty ice sharp as crème brûleé.
Years later she would not remember what they talked about, though she remembered—she thought—the configuration of him in his place behind the desk and her in a chair in front. They would most likely have discussed the story she’d submitted, and certainly the death of her mother, only a few weeks previous. She’d missed some of his classes. She was able to describe and talk about her mother’s death without crying, though she had picked up a peculiar sort of stutter. She did not feel herself in the world on the surface of things where life was happening. Her emotions had taken the form of a huge churning ball of adrenaline circulating through her, with her real self strangely still and hard at its center. The emotions waiting to accost her swirled outside the thick skin of her refusal to respond to this as a normal person would, to fall apart and to weep, to grieve whether it was listlessly or voluptuously. No, this was too big to respond to in any expected way. It was too big to respond to at all.
The stories she’d been writing around that time were post-modern experiments, with characters struggling with dark fragmentary thoughts and longing and the surprised recognition of the absurdity of time.
This also not remembered.
As for that day of visiting Mr. Tower where he lived, she remembered the house being underlit and wearing her green peasant skirt, being eyed by each member of the family, given a particularly cool appraisal by the wife, and how she was made to wait. She remembered nothing said, no words.
So there they were now, parked. There they were, always. Mr. Tower had just taken a swig from the silver flask. A lens seemed to alter the scene and a Novocain feeling coated the air.
Then, as if there were any doubt as to the lurid turn this excursion had taken, he looked at her sideways, with an actual leer, and said, in his croaking voice, Let’s speak in a language any cat or dog could understand.
The words drained the car cabin of what little oxygen was left.
She did not respond. Or maybe she mumbled non-words. Later when she thought back on it, she saw how the overture could not have been less conducive to a response. It wasn’t even a question. What was he talking about? That is, she knew precisely what he was talking about—her body alarm was alerted—but what did he actually expect that she do? It was such a demented thing to say; she couldn’t imagine what response he might have hoped for. That she bark? Laugh? That she jump on him? It was ridiculous.
Yet, it also was terrifying.
She also thought, Really? Me?
The effort is toward me? That was hard to compute.
No physical contact had been made yet her body felt hit with the same force as if she’d been thrown to the ground. Her nerves vibrated with adrenaline, numbing her.
The language of cats and dogs indeed. Her animal instinct said, Freeze. In the back of her mind was another flag waving . . . Flee! But instinct, faster than reason, knew this was less feasible. To open the door and run would somehow make it worse, more dramatic. To bolt and go running down the waterway . . . she was not even sure where exactly she was, or how far they had come. No, wait it out, said her hammering heart.
He wouldn’t do anything more.
It wasn’t as if a gun had been pulled on her or anything, so why did she have the feeling of fearing for her life? The highway close call or the stumble at the top of stairs spikes an adrenaline shot of fear, which immediately vanishes when your car swerves in time or the banister is grabbed. But the jolt of fear now bloomed like a cloud of black ink, filling the car with danger.
Also, she felt embarrassed. Also, she felt ashamed, the shame one feels at not having done a sufficient job of looking after the one person you’re supposed to keep track of: yourself.
Also, it was such an odd thing to say, not his usual way of speaking. She thought for a split second she was hallucinating. Maybe it was the all-nighter hitting her.
Later she would learn that a mistrust of one’s senses was a normal reaction to situations like this. Though the body is alerted and absolutely certain about what is happening, the brain might try to find a way to reason out of it. Was there a word for disbelief in one’s own senses?
That Tower was making a pass at her was baffling enough. She was genuinely surprised. Was there a compliment in it somewhere? Her body did not think so: an electric buzz had shot through her and her tired heart was throbbing.
She had sometimes tried to take the attitude she saw practiced by other girls—of arrogance and dismissal, of seeming not to care, and was relieved in the rare times when a man’s approach did in fact leave her neutral if not cold. But those times were rare. When a man made a move toward you, it could have a hypnotic effect. A strange chemistry happened. The appraising look— down to the feet, then back up to the face—could not be ignored. One’s blood fizzed regardless—on guard, repelled, and maybe even flattered.
She did not register it then, but thought later how different this was electrically from her usual thrilled reaction to the boy she liked, Curtis, of the long black eyelashes, who sometimes gave her velvety looks and leaned on a radiator lingering while they discussed their admiration for Beckett. But Curtis’s attentions were intermittent. He had a girlfriend—she was still in high school, a quiet beauty from a prominent family, famous for having posed in a “High School Playmate” spread in Playboy.
So she stared ahead. Concrete pathways. Acid-green leaves on trembling saplings.
The esplanade to the right where not many people were had a railing of gray aluminum. A man walking by adjusted his baseball cap in the wind as if resetting a compass. A woman jogged along with a high swinging ponytail, the soles of her sneakers representing the normal world and the peace and safety there.
Maybe she made that up, the woman running. Still, it reflected the truth of her feeling.
After your mother dies suddenly, you’re no longer as taken aback by surprises as you might have been before. You learn the truth that terrible things happen out of the blue—a breezy phrase her mother liked to use. You feel then as if there will be no blow equal to that terrible blow, and you may be right. In a life of receiving blows, there must be, after all, one blow with the strongest impact.
It was hard to measure now if Mr. Tower’s suggestion to speak in a language any cat or dog could understand would have been more shocking if her mother had not been dead, or to know if indeed he would have chosen to venture such a proposal to her were her mother still alive.
Did he think such an idiotic thing would actually work?
It was the same impulse behind the street catcalls, behind the swagger lines thrown from a pack of boys, or the murmured innuendo of a man maybe not even wanting to be heard—as if the men were tossing things extravagantly overboard, gestures to demonstrate how far their throws could go, or how little they cared for the tossed object.
Few of those things did Sophie consider at the time.
She was simply there: frozen in the fish tank of his littered car, an image which remained intact for forty years.
And for those next forty years every time Sophie thought of that moment, it would be the same clip that played. Only when she thought longer about it did she uncover parts which had been there all along. It was as if a fog blew off the scenes nearby, revealing them, and her attention brought other moments back to her. Think of all the moments that remain unrecovered, she marveled now, and how strange that a new experience can come from only revisiting an unremembered thing. Nothing new happens, yet if our mind looks again, it can find a new experience in something old. In this way, rumination turns out to be an experience after all, revealing to us new layers in our past.
He must have driven her home.
She couldn’t remember though. She remembered nothing after the swig from the flask and what he said.
Or probably not all the way home. She would have asked to be let out as soon as the streets looked familiar. They would have gotten close to the college’s Main Street with the bookstores and corner bars and House of Pancakes and spider-plant sandwich places and banks. She would have gotten out of the car as soon as possible.
The next memory she had was of either that afternoon or maybe the next day being in the kitchen in the house she rented with some of her other housemates, with its wide wooden floor, and of the airy feeling of classes being over and of spring and people starting to pack, and of telling the story to whoever happened to be in there, getting tea or smoking butts. Her friend Alison was there. Alison had been in her class with Mr. Tower the year before and had come over to discuss what happened. Alison was saying Sophie had to do something. One of her housemates, Tom, a gangly guy who kept track of the telephone and electric bills, said that she should report Tower. No one else agreed this would be effective. It would only involve Sophie more, and it was not, as another housemate, Melanie, said, twisting at her dreadlocks, in any way cool. How the hell could the administration help?
Alison suggested Sophie write Tower an angry letter. Sophie repeated she really didn’t want to have anything more to do with him. Alison reminded her of the arrow incident, and Sophie told everyone that story and people laughed—it was the first time she made people laugh with the story, as she would continue to do over the next forty years—and Sophie admitted she still had the stupid arrow. She didn’t know why she’d kept it, because it had been so embarrassing, but perhaps that was why. Tom wondered what was Sophie taking a class with Tower anyway when she knew the guy was a sleaze and Alison rolled her eyes, indicating he had no idea what he was talking about. Melanie explained, Because if that was a consideration you wouldn’t take half of the classes taught by guys.
That’s interesting, said another housemate, Mark, who had majored in linguistics, because traditionally an arrow is a symbol of protection. He was bobbing a tea bag in a mug of steaming water.
Right, said Melanie. Except when it’s violence?
The general consensus then was that Sophie should return the arrow. She could leave it in Tower’s faculty box and not have to see him. It was something, at least.
So a few days later, on the weekend when teachers were scarce, Sophie took the snapped-off arrow to Watson House, a maroon sandstone building with a depressed archway, which housed the English department. She walked stealthily down an empty hall to the wooden grid of cubbyholes, each labeled with a faculty member’s name. Instead of placing the arrow down in the cubby, she stuck its point into the wooden side. It looked as if a sprite might have launched it there from some magical forest—a make-believe forest, no doubt—and she had a small satisfaction at how out of place it looked there.
Two days later she got a letter in her own PO box with her address typed, and inside on small white stationery with R. M. Tower engraved at the top, the following message, also typed:
At least your spoiled stricken frigid little hand had enough gumption to spear the arrow into my box. Perhaps a good sign. I hope that one day you may forgive your parents for having failed you.
. . . and the scrawl indicating his name.
Her family would be arriving the morning of graduation, and the night before, her last night at college, Sophie went to a string of blowout parties dotted across campus. At some point she ended up randomly paired with a pale boy who was a friend of a friend of the boy she liked, Curtis. The pale boy went to another college and was not someone she was particularly attracted to, but he focused on her on the dance floor at one of the last parties and surprised her by twirling her around like a lassoing cowboy, making her laugh inside with embarrassment. They ended up crashing on the floor of an empty apartment with a dozen other people also crashing around them. Drunkenly at 3:00 a.m. in the dark and among the quiet strangers, the pale boy kissed her. She was not repelled, but not compelled either. She felt it blankly. He untied the halter string at her neck.
“You have nice breasts,” he said in a formal way. After not too long she let him push aside the flounces of her peasant skirt and pull off her underpants and try to enter her. Her body was unreceptive. She felt the nerves in him fluttering and tried to channel some of that energy since he was so close, but they did not know each other and their bodies did not understand each other. She was dry and felt blocked. It’s not going to work, she thought, tired and loosely drunk, but he persevered and kept pushing and he got halfway in and she helped him to all the way. The magic transport she was so enchanted by stirred in her hips and she felt a swoon distantly, but it did not seem as real, or as important as it usually was. Trying to keep his breath quiet, the pale boy sounded as if he was gasping in frozen air. It crossed her mind they might be heard, but all the bodies around them were oddly still, sleeping or passed out.
She lay there as a deep blue light appeared in the windows,
and thought how she was more sophisticated now having had sex which was not important to her. After dozing awhile she sat up, shook the boy’s shoulder, and said goodbye. She walked home in the shadowless dawn and felt the vast mystery, as one did in the dawn light. She thought how usually you just slept through it, this most magic moment of the day, and how it was perhaps like our existence, little noticing the vast mystery. She marveled too how dawn was also, in fact, something which happened monotonously by rote without interruption every twenty-four hours—hardly unusual—and had done so for thousands, if not millions, of years.
The next morning her family was there.
Three of Sophie’s six siblings had made it, with her father and her aunt, all driving the two hours from home. With them, she wove through the vast plots of gray metal foldout chairs to find them seats out of the unrelenting sun. She steered them to the back since Aunt Mimi, her mother’s sister, preferred shade, despite wearing a navy brimmed hat, a perfect match to her navy Chanel suit with the white piped lapel and pockets. Her father wore his eternal gray work suit with its short pants and incessantly jiggled change in his pocket as he gazed over the heads of his children with an expression that said it did not expect to find anything of interest in the distance either. Everyone felt the austerity of the occasion in the heavy absence of Mum, who had been a particular appreciator of ceremonies. She would dress up in something cheerful and stylish and have her hair done and bring presents for not just her child being celebrated, but for a few of the child’s friends, too. Minnie, now eight, was her uncomplaining soldier-self in short pigtails, having conceded to wearing a dress, but being allowed, something their mother would not have, to wear sneakers. Chase, at thirteen, had dressed up in a blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt, one shirttail tucked in, one flapping out. The hair in his eyes was long, perhaps in need of a haircut.
Her sister Caitlin, her thick hair looped in a part with two barrettes, wore a cream-colored dress with shoulder pads. Caitlin made a show of glaring fiercely when Sophie pointed out R. M. Tower sitting with the other eminent English faculty members on the makeshift stage in front of Watson Hall where the English majors were to receive their diplomas.
The graduates sat in the front rows, dressed in the black full-armed robes. Sophie had a red band around one upper arm to indicate her protest of the university’s investments in South Africa and its apartheid rule. Underneath she wore her lilac dress. The graduates’ black board hats were like dull sequins making a hovering mosaic. Sophie had her usual feeling in a crowd, of everyone somehow belonging there but herself. She found her alphabetical spot with her class near the back.
Sitting waiting to be called, Sophie felt the buzz of lack of sleep, once again having been up all night, and not yet the need, which could strike anytime, of the desire to nod off. She also felt the pleasant blur of after-sex, that thing you could never feel on your own. It was something you got only after physically communing with another body. The blurred state was something she could value as something only hers, private, despite its not being particularly meaningful, but it had been a version of connecting to something more than only herself.
Her row of chairs stood and turned to the right. Filing into a line snaking up to the stage, they advanced toward the steps. She glanced back to where her family sat and saw Aunt Mimi’s blue-and-white hat and Caitlin’s white dress. Where was Dad? Probably deeper in the shadows, having removed himself to smoke.
At the far end of the platform the dean, a woman with springy gray hair and a receding chin, was announcing the graduates’ names into a microphone. Then it was her turn—the dean said her name, Sophie Paine Vincent. Sophie stepped up and moved across the stage, feeling the eyes of her family on her like pallbearers. Her red band of protest was on the stage side and she regretted it didn’t show. At the time, she believed she would continue, after graduation, to protest and fiercely fight and defend the rights of living things, humans and animals both. First she had planned to spend the summer driving the perimeter of the country. Other friends were headed to Europe, but she felt she should see her own country first. Alone, she would end up driving for a month clockwise from New England, down through the South, up the western coast and back along through all the northern states, ending up at Niagara Falls, sleeping in the back of the car and writing in a journal, beginning the first direct acquaintance with being alone out in the world for an extended period of time which ended up being a kind of arrow indicating the career she would eventually make for herself, as a writer.
She crossed the stage and shook hands with Mr. Weinstock who had taught her a truly inspiring class on Proust, then shook hands with Ms. Havercloss, the feminist with her feather earrings whom she’d never studied with, and, when she came to R. M. Tower, in his robe with a green-and-yellow capelet over the shoulders, she walked purposefully by, refusing to look at him, even if it made her feel weirdly disoriented. After getting her diploma, one of the last on the table, she descended the stairs and moved the tassel dangling off her square hat from the right side to the left. In the distance despite the massive crowd she could pick out Caitlin’s face and her reliable knowing smile.
Forty years later she still remembered being in the car and the language of cats and dogs. She remembered the lilac dress and the flask, remembered the arrow and the note and refusing the offered hand.
Afterward, whenever she was alone with a man, particularly one older, she would feel the usual animal trepidation. For the rest of her life, in fact, pretty much every time she was one-on-one with a man, she would find herself wary and untrusting and on guard.
But that was simply how things were. After all, the truth of it was, if he wanted to, a man could snap her arm in half.
Excerpted from Why I Don’t Write by Susan Minot. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of Knopf.