Everything I Never Told You[CHAPTER-2]



How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.

In her first year at Radcliffe, 1955, Marilyn had enrolled in introductory physics, and her advisor glanced at her course schedule and paused. He was a plump man with a tweed suit and a crimson bowtie, a dark gray hat brim-down on the table beside him. “Why do you want to take physics?” he asked, and she explained shyly that she was hoping to become a doctor. “Not a nurse?” he’d said, with a chuckle. From a folder he pulled her high-school transcript and studied it. “Well,” he said. “I see you received very good grades in your high-school physics course.” She’d had the highest grade in her class, had set the curve on every test; she had loved physics. But he couldn’t know that. On the transcript, it said only “A.” She held her breath, waiting, afraid he would tell her that science was too hard, that she’d better try something like English or history instead. In her mind she prepared her retort. Instead he said, “All right, then, why don’t you try chemistry—if you think you can handle it,” and signed her course slip and handed it over, just like that.

When she arrived at the laboratory, though, she found herself the only girl in a room of fifteen men. The instructor tut-tutted and said, “Miss Walker, you’d better tie up those golden locks.” “Can I light the burner for you?” someone else would say. “Let me open that jar for you.” When she broke a beaker, the second day of class, three men rushed to her side. “Careful,” they said. “Better let us help.” Everything, she soon realized, started with better: “Better let me pour that acid for you.” “Better stand back—this will make a pop.” By the third day of class, she decided to show them. She said no, thank you, when people offered to make her pipettes, then hid a grin as they watched her melt glass tubes over the Bunsen burner and stretch them, like taffy, into perfectly tapered droppers. While her classmates sometimes splashed their lab coats, burning holes all the way down through their suits, she measured acids with steady hands. Her solutions never bubbled onto the counter like baking-soda volcanoes. Her results were the most accurate; her lab reports the most complete. By midterm, she set the curve for every exam, and the instructor had stopped smirking.

She had always liked surprising people that way. In high school, she had approached her principal with a request: to take shop instead of home ec. It was 1952, and in Boston, researchers were just beginning to develop a pill that would change women’s lives forever—but girls still wore skirts to school, and in Virginia, her request had been radical. Home economics was required for every sophomore girl, and Marilyn’s mother, Doris Walker, was the only home ec teacher at Patrick Henry Senior High. Marilyn had asked to switch into shop with the sophomore boys. It was the same class period, she pointed out. Her schedule wouldn’t be disrupted. Mr. Tolliver, the principal, knew her well; she had been at the top of her class—girls and boys—since the sixth grade, and her mother had taught at the school for years. So he nodded and smiled as she made her case. Then he shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We can’t make an exception for anyone, or everyone will expect it.” At the look on Marilyn’s face, he reached across the desk and patted her hand. “Some of the equipment in the shop would be difficult for you to use,” he told her. “And to be honest, Miss Walker, having a girl like you in the classroom would be very distracting to the boys in the class.” He meant it as a compliment, she knew. But she also knew that it wasn’t. She smiled and thanked him for his time. It wasn’t a true smile, and her dimples didn’t show.

So she had slouched in the back row of the home ec classroom, waiting out the first-day welcome speech her mother had given for a dozen years, drumming her fingers as her mother promised to teach them everything a young lady needed to keep a house. As if, Marilyn thought, it might run away when you weren’t looking. She studied the other girls in her class, noting who bit her nails, whose sweater was pilled, who smelled faintly of a cigarette snuck over lunch. Across the hall, she could see Mr. Landis, the shop teacher, demonstrating the correct way to hold a hammer.

Keeping house, she had thought. Each day she watched her classmates, clumsy in thimbled fingers, sucking the ends of thread, squinting for the needle’s eye. She thought of her mother’s insistence on changing clothes before dinner, though there was no longer a husband to impress with her fresh face and crisp housedress. It was after her father left that her mother had begun to teach. Marilyn had been three. Her clearest memory of her father was a feel and a smell: the bristle of his cheek against hers as he lifted her up, and the tingle of Old Spice in her nostrils. She didn’t remember his leaving but knew it had happened. Everyone did. And now, everyone had more or less forgotten it. Newcomers to the school district assumed Mrs. Walker was a widow. Her mother herself never mentioned it. She still powdered her nose after cooking and before eating; she still put on lipstick before coming downstairs to make breakfast. So they called it keeping house for a reason, Marilyn thought. Sometimes it did run away. And in English class, on a test, she wrote, Irony: a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things, and received an A.

She began tangling the thread on her sewing machine. She snipped patterns without unfolding them, making paper-cut lace of the layers beneath. Her zippers ripped out of their dresses. She stirred eggshell fragments into the pancake batter; she switched salt and sugar in the sponge cake. One day she left her iron facedown on the board, causing not only a blackened burn in the cover but enough smoke to set off the fire sprinklers. That evening, at dinner, her mother finished her last bite of potato and set her knife and fork down, crossed neatly, on the plate.

“I know what you’re trying to prove,” she said. “But believe me, I will fail you if you keep this up.” Then she gathered the dishes and carried them to the sink.

Marilyn did not move to help as she usually did. She watched her mother tie a ruffled apron around her waist, fingers knotting the strings in one quick motion. After the last dish was washed, her mother rinsed her hands and applied a dab of lotion from the bottle on the counter. Then she came to the table, brushed Marilyn’s hair from her face, and kissed her forehead. Her hands smelled like lemons. Her lips were dry and warm.

For the rest of her life, this would be what Marilyn thought of first when she thought of her mother. Her mother, who had never left her hometown eighty miles from Charlottesville, who always wore gloves outside the house, and who never, in all the years Marilyn could remember, sent her to school without a hot breakfast. Who never mentioned Marilyn’s father after he left, but raised her alone. Who, when Marilyn earned a scholarship to Radcliffe, hugged her for a long time and whispered, “How proud I am of you. You have no idea.” And then, when she loosened her arms, looked into Marilyn’s face and tucked her hair behind her ears and said, “You know, you’ll meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men.”

It would bother Marilyn, for the rest of her life, that her mother had been right. She worked her way through chemistry, majored in physics, ticked the requirements for medical school off her list. Late at night, bent over her textbooks while her roommate wound curlers into her hair and patted cold cream onto her cheeks and went to bed, Marilyn sipped double-strength tea and kept awake by picturing herself in a white doctor’s coat, laying a cool hand against a feverish forehead, touching a stethoscope to a patient’s chest. It was the furthest thing she could imagine from her mother’s life, where sewing a neat hem was a laudable accomplishment and removing beet stains from a blouse was cause for celebration. Instead she would blunt pain and stanch bleeding and set bones. She would save lives. Yet in the end it happened just as her mother predicted: she met a man.

It was September 1957, her junior year, at the back of a crowded lecture hall. Cambridge was still sweltering and sticky, and everyone was waiting for the crisp cool of fall to sweep the city clean. The course was new that year—“The Cowboy in American Culture”—and everyone wanted to take it: rumor had it that their homework would be watching The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke on television. Marilyn took a piece of loose-leaf from her folder and, while her head was bent, quiet fell over the room like snow. She glanced up at the professor approaching the podium, and then she understood why everyone had gone silent.

The course catalog had listed the instructor as James P. Lee. He was a fourth-year graduate student and no one knew anything about him. To Marilyn, who had spent all her years in Virginia, Lee conjured a certain kind of man: a Richard Henry, a Robert E. Now she realized that she—that everyone—had expected someone in a sand-colored blazer, someone with a slight drawl and a Southern pedigree. The man setting his papers on the lectern was youngish and thin, but that was as close as he came to what they all had pictured. An Oriental, she thought. She had never seen one in person before. He was dressed like an undertaker: black suit, black tie knotted tight, shirt so white it glowed. His hair was slicked back and parted in a perfect pale line, but one wisp stood straight up in back, like an Indian chief’s feather. As he started to speak, he reached up with one hand to smooth down the cowlick, and someone snickered.

If Professor Lee heard, he didn’t show it. “Good afternoon,” he said. Marilyn found herself holding her breath as he wrote his name on the board. She could see him through her classmates’ eyes, and she knew what they were thinking. This was their professor? This little man, five foot nine at most and not even American, was going to teach them about cowboys? But when she studied him again, she noticed how slender his neck was, how smooth his cheeks. He looked like a little boy playing dress-up, and she closed her eyes and prayed for the class to go well. The silence stretched, taut as the surface of a bubble, ready to be popped. Someone shoved a sheaf of mimeographed syllabi over her shoulder, and she jumped.

By the time she had taken the top copy and passed the rest on, Professor Lee had begun to speak again.

“The image of the cowboy,” he said, “has existed longer than we might imagine.” There was no trace of an accent in his voice, and she slowly let out her breath. Where had he come from, she wondered. He sounded nothing like what she’d been told Chinamen sounded like: so solly, no washee. Had he grown up in America? Ten minutes in, the room began to rustle and murmur. Marilyn glanced at the notes she’d jotted down: phrases like “undergone multiple evolutions in each era of American history” and “apparent dichotomy between social rebel and embodiment of quintessential American values.” She scanned the syllabus. Ten required books, a midterm exam, three essays. This wasn’t what her classmates had had in mind. A girl at the side of the room tucked her book beneath her arm and slipped out the door. Two girls from the next row followed. After that it was a slow but steady trickle. Every minute or two another few students left. One boy from the first row stood up and cut right in front of the podium on his way out. The last to leave were three boys from the back. They whispered and sniggered as they edged past just-emptied seats, their thighs bumping each armrest with a soft thump, thump, thump. As the door closed behind them, Marilyn heard one shout “Yippee-ki-yay-ay!” so loud that he drowned out the lecture. Only nine other students still remained, all studiously bent over notebooks, but they were all reddening in the cheeks and at the edges of their ears. Her own face was hot and she didn’t dare look at Professor Lee. Instead she turned her face to her notes and put her hand to her forehead, as if shielding her eyes from the sun.

When she finally peeked up at the podium again, Professor Lee gazed out over the room as if nothing were amiss. He didn’t seem to notice that his voice now echoed in the nearly empty hall. He finished his lecture with five minutes remaining in the period and said, “I’ll hold office hours until three o’clock.” For just a few seconds, he stared straight ahead, toward a distant horizon, and she squirmed in her seat as if he were staring directly at her.

It was that last moment, the tingle at the back of her neck as he stacked his notes and left the room, that brought her to his office after the lecture. The history department had the peaceful quiet of a library, the air still and cool and slightly dusty. She found him at his desk, head propped against the wall, reading that morning’s Crimson. The part in his hair had blurred, and the cowlick stuck up again.

“Professor Lee? I’m Marilyn Walker. I was in your lecture just now?” Though she hadn’t meant it to, the end of her voice swerved up into a question, and she thought, I must sound like a teenage girl, a stupid, silly, shallow teenage girl.

“Yes?” He did not look up, and Marilyn fiddled with the top button of her sweater.

“I just wanted to check,” she said, “if you thought I’d be able to keep up with the work.”

He still didn’t look up. “Are you a history major?”

“No. Physics.”

“A senior?”

“No. A junior. I’m going to medical school. So history—it’s not my field.”

“Well,” he said, “to be honest, I don’t think you’ll have any problems. If you choose to stay in the course, that is.” He half-folded the newspaper, revealing a mug of coffee, took a sip, then fanned out the paper again. Marilyn pursed her lips. She understood that her audience was now over, that she was expected to turn around and walk back into the hallway and leave him alone. Still, she’d come here for something, though she wasn’t sure what, and she jutted out her jaw and pulled a chair up to his desk.

“Was history your favorite subject in school?”

“Miss Walker,” he said, looking up at last, “why are you here?” When she saw his face up close, just a table-width away, she saw again how young he was. Maybe only a few years older than she was, not even thirty, she thought. His hands were broad, the fingers long. No rings.

“I just wanted to apologize for those boys,” she said suddenly, and realized this was really why she’d come. He paused, eyebrows slightly raised, and she heard what he’d just heard: “boys,” a trivializing word. Boys will be boys.

“Friends of yours?”

“No,” Marilyn said, stung. “No. Just idiots.”

At that he laughed, and she did, too. She watched tiny crinkles form around the corners of his eyes, and when they unfolded, his face was different, softer, a real person’s face now. From here, she saw that his eyes were brown, not black, as they’d seemed in the lecture hall. How skinny he was, she thought, how wide his shoulders were, like a swimmer’s, his skin the color of tea, of fall leaves toasted by the sun. She had never seen anyone like him.

“I guess that sort of thing must happen all the time,” she said softly.

“I wouldn’t know. That was my first lecture. The department let me take this class as a trial.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “You stayed until the end.” They both looked down—he at his now-empty mug, she at the typewriter and neat sheaf of carbon paper perched at the end of his desk.

“Paleontology,” he said after a moment.


“Paleontology,” he repeated. “My favorite subject. It was paleontology. I wanted to dig up fossils.”

“That’s a kind of history, though,” she said.

“I guess it is.” He grinned into his coffee cup, and Marilyn leaned across the desk and kissed him.

On Thursday, at the next lecture, Marilyn sat off to the side. When Professor Lee came into the room, she didn’t look up. Instead she wrote the date carefully in the corner of her notes, looping a demure S in September, crossing the t in a perfectly horizontal line. As he began to speak, her cheeks went hot, as if she’d stepped into summer sun. She was positive she was bright red, blazing like a lighthouse, but when she finally looked around, out of the corners of her eyes, everyone was focused on the lecture. There were a handful of other students in the room, but they were scribbling in their notebooks or facing the podium up front. No one noticed her at all.

When she’d kissed him, she had surprised herself. It had been such an impulse—the way she sometimes reached out to catch a stray leaf on the wind, or jumped a puddle on a rainy day—something done without thinking or resisting, something pointless and harmless. She had never done anything like that before and never would again, and looking back on it, she would forever be surprised at herself, and a little shocked. But at that moment she had known, with a certainty she would never feel about anything else in her life, that it was right, that she wanted this man in her life. Something inside her said, He understands. What it’s like to be different.

The touch of his lips on hers had startled her. He had tasted like coffee, warm and slightly bitter, and he had kissed back. That had startled her, too. As if he were ready for it, as if it were as much his idea as hers. After they finally drew apart, she’d been too embarrassed to meet his eyes. Instead she looked down into her lap, studying the soft plaid flannel of her skirt. Sweat bunched her slip to her thighs. In a moment she grew braver and peeked at him through the curtain of her hair. He looked shyly up at her then, through his lashes, and she saw that he wasn’t angry, that his cheeks were pink. “Perhaps we’d better go somewhere else,” he said, and she’d nodded and picked up her bag.

They’d walked down along the river, passing the redbrick dorms in silence. The crew team had been practicing, the oarsmen bending and unbending over their oars in perfect unison, the boat sliding across the water without sound. Marilyn knew these men: they asked her to mixers, to movies, to football games; they all looked alike, the same blend of sandy hair and ruddy skin she’d seen all through high school, all her life—as familiar as boiled potatoes. When she turned them down to finish a paper or catch up on her reading, they moved on to woo other girls down the hall. From where she stood on the riverbank, the distance made them anonymous, expressionless as dolls. Then she and James—as she did not even dare, yet, to think of him—had reached the footbridge, and she stopped and turned to face him. He hadn’t looked like a professor, but like a teenage boy, bashful and eager, reaching out to take her hand.

And James? What had he thought of her? He would never tell her this, would never admit it to himself: he had not noticed her at all, that first lecture. He had looked right at her, over and over, as he held forth on Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and John Wayne, but when she came to his office he had not even recognized her. Hers had been just one of the pale, pretty faces, indistinguishable from the next, and though he would never fully realize it, this was the first reason he came to love her: because she had blended in so perfectly, because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home.

All through the second lecture, Marilyn remembered the smell of his skin—clean and sharp, like the air after a rainstorm—and the feel of his hands at her waist, and even her palms grew warm. Through her fingers, she watched him: the tip of his ballpoint tapping the top of the podium, the deliberate flick as he turned over another page of his notes. He looked everywhere but toward her, she realized. At the end of the hour, she dawdled in her seat, slowly slipping her papers into her folder, tucking her pencil into the pocket. Her classmates, hurrying to other courses, squeezed past her into the aisle, jostling her with their bags. At the podium, James sorted his notes, dusted his hands, replaced the chalk on the blackboard ledge. He didn’t look up when she stacked her books, or when she tucked them in the curve of her arm and headed toward the door. Then, just as her hand touched the knob, he called, “A moment, Miss Walker,” and something inside her jumped.

The classroom was empty now, and she leaned against the wall, trembling, while he closed his briefcase and descended the steps of the platform. She curled her fingers around the doorknob behind her to hold herself in place. But when he reached her, he wasn’t smiling. “Miss Walker,” he said again, taking a deep breath, and she found that she wasn’t smiling either.

He was her teacher, he reminded her. She was his student. As her teacher, he would feel he was taking advantage of his position if they were—he looked down, fiddling with the handle of his briefcase—if they were to develop any kind of relationship. He wasn’t looking at Marilyn, but she didn’t know. She was looking down at her feet, at the scuffed toes of her shoes.

Marilyn tried to swallow and couldn’t. She concentrated on the gray scratches against the black leather and steeled herself by thinking of her mother, all those hints about meeting a Harvard man. You weren’t here to find a man, she told herself. You were here for something better. But instead of the anger she hoped for, a hot ache swelled at the base of her throat.

“I understand,” she said, looking up at last.

The next day, Marilyn came to his office hours to tell him that she’d dropped the class. Within a week they were lovers.

They spent all autumn together. James had a seriousness, a reserve, unlike anyone she had met before. He seemed to look at things more closely, to think more carefully, to hold himself a half step apart. Only when they came together, in his tiny Cambridge apartment, did that reserve drop, with a fierceness that made her catch her breath. Afterward, curled up on his bed, Marilyn ruffled his hair, spiky with sweat. For those afternoon hours, he seemed at ease with himself, and she loved that she was the only thing that made him feel that way. They would lie together, dozing and dreaming, until six o’clock. Then Marilyn slipped her dress back over her head, and James buttoned his shirt and combed his hair again. His cowlick would stand up at the back, but she never told him, loving that little reminder of the side only she got to see. She simply kissed him and hurried back for evening sign-in at the dormitory. James himself began to forget about the cowlick; after Marilyn left, he seldom remembered to look in the mirror. Every time she kissed him, every time he opened his arms and she crawled into them, felt like a miracle. Coming to her made him feel perfectly welcomed, perfectly at home, as he had never in his life felt before.

He had never felt he belonged here, even though he’d been born on American soil, even though he had never set foot anywhere else. His father had come to California under a false name, pretending to be the son of a neighbor who had emigrated there some years earlier. America was a melting pot, but Congress, terrified that the molten mixture was becoming a shade too yellow, had banned all immigrants from China. Only the children of those already in the States could enter. So James’s father had taken the name of his neighbor’s son, who had drowned in the river the year before, and come to join his “father” in San Francisco. It was the story of nearly every Chinese immigrant from the time of Chester A. Arthur to the end of the Second World War. While the Irish and the Germans and the Swedes crowded onto steamship decks, waving as the pale green torch of the Statue of Liberty came into view, the coolies had to find other means to reach the land where all men were created equal. Those who made it would visit their wives in China and return each time celebrating the birth of a son. Those at home in the villages who longed to make their fortunes would adopt the names of those mythical sons and make the long journey across the sea. While the Norwegians and the Italians and the Russian Jews ferried from Ellis Island to Manhattan, fanning out by road and railway to Kansas and Nebraska and Minnesota, the Chinese who bluffed their way to California mostly stayed put. In Chinatowns, the lives of all those paper sons were fragile and easily torn. Everyone’s name was false. Everyone hoped not to be found out and sent back. Everyone clustered together so they wouldn’t stand out.

James’s parents, however, had not stayed put. In 1938, when James was six, his father received a letter from a paper brother who had gone east looking for work when the Depression began. He had found a place at a small boarding school in Iowa, the “brother” wrote, doing groundswork and maintenance. Now his (real, nonpaper) mother was ill and he was returning to China, and his employers wondered if he had any reliable friends who might do as good a job. They like the Chinese, the letter said; they feel we are quiet and hardworking and clean. It was a good position, a very exclusive school. There might be a job for his wife in the school kitchens. Would he be interested?

James could not read Chinese but all his life he held the memory of the letter’s last paragraph, a scrawl of fountain-pen calligraphy, which caught his parents’ attention. There was a special policy, said the brother, for children of employees. If they could pass an entrance exam, they could attend the school for free.

Jobs were scarce and everyone was hungry, but it was because of this paragraph that the Lees sold their furniture and moved across the country with two suitcases between them. It took five Greyhound rides and four days. When they reached Iowa, James’s “uncle” took them to his apartment. James remembered only the man’s teeth, more crooked even than his father’s, one tooth turned sideways, like a sliver of rice waiting to be toothpicked out. The next day, his father put on his best shirt, buttoned up to the collar, and went with his friend to Lloyd Academy. By afternoon it was settled: he would start the following week. The morning after that his mother put on her best dress and went with his father to the school. That evening, each brought home a navy-blue uniform stitched with a new English name: HenryWendy.

A few weeks later, James’s parents brought him to Lloyd for the entrance exam. A man with a large white mustache like cotton brought him into an empty classroom and gave him a booklet and a yellow pencil. Looking back, James realized what a brilliant idea it was: what six-year-old would be able to read, let alone pass, such an exam? A teacher’s son, perhaps, if she had studied with him. Surely not a janitor’s son, or a cafeteria lady’s son, or a groundskeeper’s son. If a square playing field is forty feet on a side, how long is the fence that goes around it? When was America discovered? Which of these words is a noun? Here is a sequence of shapes; which shape completes the pattern? We’re sorry, the principal could say. Your son didn’t pass the test. He isn’t up to Lloyd academic standards. And no tuition would be necessary.

James, though, had known all the answers. He had read every newspaper he could get his hands on; he had read all the books his father had bought, a nickel a bag, at library book sales. One hundred sixty feet, he wrote. 1492. Automobile. The circle. He finished the test and set the pencil in the slot at the top of the desk. The man with the mustache didn’t look up until twenty minutes later. “Finished already?” he said. “You were so quiet, sonny.” He took away the booklet and the pencil and brought James back to the kitchens, where his mother was working. “I’ll grade the test and let you know the results next week,” he told them, but James already knew he had passed.

When the term began in September, he rode in to school with his father in the Ford truck the school had lent him for his maintenance work. “You’re the first Oriental boy to attend Lloyd,” his father reminded him. “Set a good example.” That first morning, James slid into his seat and the girl next to him asked, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” It wasn’t until he heard the horror in the teacher’s voice—“Shirley Byron!”—that he realized he was supposed to be embarrassed; the next time it happened, he had learned his lesson and turned red right away. In every class, every day that first week, the other students studied him: where had he come from, this boy? He had a bookbag, a Lloyd uniform. Yet he didn’t live at the school like the rest of them; he looked like no one they’d ever seen. Now and then, his father would be called in to loosen a squeaky window, replace a lightbulb, mop up a spill. James, scrunched in the back row, saw his classmates glance from his father to him and knew that they suspected. He would bend his head over his book, so close that his nose nearly touched the page, until his father left the room. By the second month, he asked his parents for permission to walk to and from school by himself. Alone, he could pretend to be just another student. He could pretend that, in the uniform, he looked just like everyone else.

He spent twelve years at Lloyd and never felt at home. At Lloyd, everyone seemed to be descended from a Pilgrim or a senator or a Rockefeller, but when they did family tree projects in class, he pretended to forget the assignment rather than draw his own complicated diagram. Don’t ask any questions, he prayed silently as the teacher marked a small red zero beside his name. He set himself a curriculum of studying American culture—listening to the radio, reading comics, saving his pocket money for double features, learning the rules of the new board games—in case anyone ever said, Hey, didya hear Red Skelton yesterday? or Wanna play Monopoly? though no one ever did. As he got older, he did not attend the dances, or the pep rallies, or the junior or senior proms. At best, girls smiled silently at him in the hallways; at worst, they stared as he passed, and he heard their snickers as he turned the corner. At graduation, the yearbook ran one photo of him besides the obligatory senior portrait: a shot of him at an assembly to greet President Truman, his head visible over the shoulder of the class treasurer and a girl who would go on to marry a Belgian prince. His ears, blushing pink in real life, were a deep and unnatural gray in the photograph, his mouth slightly open, as if he had been caught trespassing. At college, he hoped things would be different. Yet after seven years at Harvard—four as an undergrad, three and counting as a graduate student—nothing had changed. Without realizing why, he studied the most quintessentially American subject he could find—cowboys—but he never spoke of his parents, or his family. He still had few acquaintances and no friends. He still found himself shifting in his seat, as if at any moment someone might notice him and ask him to leave.

So that fall of 1957, when Marilyn had leaned over his desk and kissed him, this beautiful honey-haired girl, when she came into his arms and then into his bed, James could not quite believe it. The first afternoon they’d spent together, in his tiny whitewashed studio apartment, he marveled at how her body fit so perfectly against his: her nose nestled exactly into the hollow between his collarbones; her cheek curved to match the side of his neck. As if they were two halves of a mold. He had studied her with the air of a sculptor, tracing the contours of her hips and calves, his fingertips grazing her skin. When they made love, her hair came alive. It darkened from golden-wheat to amber. It kinked and curled like a fiddlehead fern. It amazed him that he could have such an effect on anyone. As she dozed in his arms, her hair slowly relaxed, and when she woke, it had stretched back to its usual waves. Then her easy laugh sparkled in that white, bare room; as she chattered, breathless, her hands fluttered until he caught them in his and they lay warm and still, like resting birds, and then she pulled him to her again. It was as if America herself was taking him in. It was too much luck. He feared the day the universe would notice he wasn’t supposed to have her and take her away. Or that she might suddenly realize her mistake and disappear from his life as suddenly as she had entered. After a while, the fear became a habit, too.

He began to make small changes he thought she might like: he trimmed his hair; he bought a blue-striped Oxford shirt after she admired one on a passerby. (The cowlick, persistent, still stood up; years later, Nath and Hannah would inherit it, too.) One Saturday, at Marilyn’s suggestion, he bought two gallons of pale yellow paint, pushed the furniture to the middle of the apartment, and spread drop cloths across the parquet. As they brushed one section, then another, the room brightened like panes of sunlight stretching across the walls. When everything was painted, they opened all the windows and curled up on the bed in the center of the room. The apartment was so small that nothing was more than a few feet from the wall, but surrounded by his desk and chairs, the armchair and the dresser pressed close, he felt as if they were on an island, or afloat in the sea. With Marilyn tucked in the curve of his shoulder, he kissed her and her arms circled his neck, her body rose to meet his. Another tiny miracle, every time.

Later that afternoon, waking in the fading light, he noticed a tiny yellow blotch on the tip of Marilyn’s toe. After a moment of searching, he found a smudge on the wall near the end of the bed, where her foot had touched it as they made love: a dime-sized spot where the paint was blotted away. He said nothing to Marilyn, and when they pushed the furniture back into place that evening, the dresser concealed the smudge. Every time he looked at that dresser he was pleased, as if he could see through the pine drawers and his folded clothing straight to it, that mark her body had left in his space.

At Thanksgiving, Marilyn decided not to go home to Virginia. She told herself, and James, that it was too far for such a short holiday, but in reality she knew her mother would ask her, again, if she had any prospects, and this time she did not know how to respond. Instead, in James’s tiny kitchen, she roasted a chicken, cubed potatoes, peeled yams into a casserole dish the size of a steno pad: Thanksgiving dinner in miniature. James, who had never cooked himself a meal, who subsisted on burgers from Charlie’s Kitchen and English muffins from the Hayes-Bickford, watched in awe. After Marilyn basted the chicken, she looked up defiantly, closed the oven, and peeled the oven mitts from her hands.

“My mother is a home economics teacher,” she said. “Betty Crocker is her personal goddess.” It was the first thing she had told him about her mother. The way she said it, it sounded like a secret, something she had kept hidden and now deliberately, trustingly, revealed.

James felt he should return this privilege, this private gift. He had mentioned once, in passing, that his parents had worked at a school, leaving it at that, hoping she’d think teacher. But he had never told her how the school kitchen had been like the land of the giants, everything economy-sized: rolls of tinfoil half a mile long, jars of mayonnaise big enough to hold his head. His mother was in charge of bringing the world down to scale, chopping melons into dice-sized cubes, portioning pats of butter onto saucers to accompany each roll. He had never told anyone how the other kitchen ladies snickered at his mother for wrapping up the leftover food instead of throwing it away; how at home they’d reheat it in the oven while his parents quizzed him: What did you do in geography? What did you do in math? And he’d recite: Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. Prime numbers have only two factors. They didn’t understand his answers, but they’d nodded, pleased that James was learning things they did not know. As they spoke, he would crumble crackers into a cup of celery soup, or peel waxed paper from a wedge of cheese sandwich, and pause, confused, certain he’d done this before, uncertain whether he was reviewing his studies or the whole schoolday. In the fifth grade, he had stopped speaking Chinese to his parents, afraid of tinting his English with an accent; long before that, he had stopped speaking to his parents at school at all. He was afraid to tell Marilyn these things, afraid that once he admitted them, she would see him as he had always seen himself: a scrawny outcast, feeding on scraps, reciting his lines and trying to pass. An imposter. He was afraid she would never see him any other way.

“My parents are both dead,” he said. “They died just after I started college.”

His mother had died his second year, a tumor blossoming in her brain. His father had gone six months later. Complications of pneumonia, the doctors had said, but James had known the truth: his father simply hadn’t wanted to live alone.

Marilyn didn’t say anything, but she reached out and cupped his face in her hands, and James felt the leftover heat from the oven in her soft palms. They were there only a moment before the timer buzzed and she turned back to the stove, but they warmed him through. He remembered his mother’s hands—scarred from steam burns, callused from scouring pots—and wanted to press his lips to the tender hollow where Marilyn’s life line and love line crossed. He promised himself he would never let those hands harden. As Marilyn took the chicken, burnished and bronze, from the oven, he was mesmerized by her deftness. It was beautiful, the way broth thickened to gravy under her guidance, how potatoes fluffed like cotton beneath her fork. This was the closest thing he’d seen to magic. A few months later, when they married, they would make a pact: to let the past drift away, to stop asking questions, to look forward from then on, never back.

That spring, Marilyn was making plans for her senior year; James was finishing his Ph.D. and waiting, still, to see if he would be taken on in the history department. There was an opening and he had applied, and Professor Carlson, the department head, had hinted he was by far the most accomplished in his class. Now and then, he would interview for positions elsewhere—in New Haven, in Providence—just in case. Deep inside, though, he was certain that he would be hired at Harvard. “Carlson as good as told me I’m in,” he said to Marilyn whenever the subject came up. Marilyn nodded and kissed him and refused to think about what would happen when she graduated the next year, when she headed off to medical school who knew where. Harvard, she thought, ticking off her fingers. Columbia. Johns Hopkins. Stanford. Each digit a step farther away.

Then, in April, two things neither of them expected: Professor Carlson informed James that he was very, very sorry to disappoint him, but they had decided to take his classmate William McPherson instead, and of course they knew James would find many other opportunities elsewhere. “Did they say why?” Marilyn asked, and James replied, “I wasn’t the right fit for the department, they said,” and she did not raise the subject again. Four days later, an even bigger surprise: Marilyn was pregnant.

So instead of Harvard, an offer at last from humble Middlewood College, accepted with relief. Instead of Boston, small-town Ohio. Instead of medical school, a wedding. Nothing quite as planned.

“A baby,” Marilyn said to James, over and over. “Our baby. So much better.” By the time they were married, Marilyn would be only three months along, and it wouldn’t show. To herself, she said, You can come back and finish that last year, when the baby is older. It would be almost eight years before school would seem real and possible and tangible again, but Marilyn didn’t know that. As she left the dean’s office, an indefinite leave secured, she was certain that everything she had dreamed for herself—medical school, doctorhood, that new and important life—sat poised for her return, like a well-trained dog awaiting its master. Still, when Marilyn sat down at the telephone table in the dorm lobby and gave the long-distance operator her mother’s number, her voice shook with each digit. As her mother’s voice finally came over the line, she forgot to say hello. Instead she blurted out, “I’m getting married. In June.”

Her mother paused. “Who is he?”

“His name is James Lee.”

“A student?”

Marilyn’s face warmed. “He’s just finishing his Ph.D. In American history.” She hesitated and decided on a half-truth. “Harvard was thinking of hiring him, in the fall.”

“So he’s a professor.” A sudden alertness tinted her mother’s voice. “Sweetheart, I’m so happy for you. I can’t wait to meet him.”

Relief flooded Marilyn. Her mother wasn’t upset about her leaving school early; why would she mind? Hadn’t she done just what her mother had hoped: met a wonderful Harvard man? She read off the information from a slip of paper: Friday, June 13, eleven thirty, with the justice of the peace; lunch afterward at the Parker House. “It won’t be a big party. Just us, and you, and a few of our friends. James’s parents are both dead.”

“Lee,” her mother mused. “Is he connected to anyone we know?”

Marilyn realized, suddenly, what her mother was imagining. It was 1958; in Virginia, in half the country, their wedding would break the law. Even in Boston, she sometimes saw disapproval in the eyes of the passersby. Her hair was no longer the white-blond of her childhood, but it was still light enough to catch attention when bent toward James’s inky black head in movie theaters, on a park bench, at the counter at the Waldorf Cafeteria. A gaggle of Radcliffe girls came down the stairs, one hovering nearby to wait for the phone, the others crowding around the hall mirror to apply powder to their noses. One of them, just a week before, had heard about Marilyn’s marriage and came by her room “to see if it was really true.”

Marilyn squeezed the receiver and pressed one palm to her belly and kept her voice sweet. “I don’t know, Mother,” she said. “Why don’t you ask him when you meet him?”

So her mother came in from Virginia, the first time she’d ever left the state. Standing at the station with James hours after his graduation, waiting for her mother’s train, Marilyn told herself: she would have come anyway, even if I’d told her. Her mother stepped onto the platform and spotted Marilyn and a smile flashed across her face—spontaneous, proud—and for that instant, Marilyn believed it completely. Of course she would have. Then the smile flickered just for a moment, like a flash of static. Her gaze darted back and forth between the stout blond woman standing on her daughter’s left and the skinny Oriental man on her right, looking for the advertised James, not finding him. Finally understanding. A few seconds passed before she shook James’s hand, told him she was very, very happy to meet him, and allowed him to take her bag.

Marilyn and her mother had dinner alone that night, and her mother did not mention James until dessert. She knew what her mother would ask—Why do you love him?—and steeled herself for the question. But her mother didn’t ask this at all, didn’t mention the word love. Instead she swallowed a bite of cake and studied her daughter from across the table. “You’re sure,” she said, “that he doesn’t just want a green card?”

Marilyn couldn’t look at her. Instead she stared at her mother’s hands, spotted despite the gloves and the lemon-scented lotion, at the fork pinched between the fingers, at the crumb clinging to the tines. A tiny wrinkle creased her mother’s eyebrows, as if someone had nicked her forehead with a knife. Years later, Hannah would spy this same mark of deep worry on her mother’s face, though she would not know its source, and Marilyn would never have admitted the resemblance. “He was born in California, Mother,” she said, and her mother looked away and dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, leaving two red smears on the linen.

The morning of the wedding, as they waited in the courthouse, Marilyn’s mother kept fiddling with the clasp of her purse. They’d gotten there almost an hour early, worried about traffic, about parking, about missing their spot with the justice of the peace. James had put on a new suit and kept patting the breast pocket, checking for the rings through the navy-blue wool. Such a timid and nervous gesture made Marilyn want to kiss him right there in front of everyone. In twenty-five minutes she would be his wife. And then her mother stepped closer and took Marilyn’s elbow in a grip that felt like a clamp.

“Let’s touch up your lipstick,” she said, nudging Marilyn toward the ladies’ room.

She should have known it was coming. All morning her mother had been dissatisfied with everything. Marilyn’s dress wasn’t white but cream. It didn’t look like a wedding dress; it was too plain, like something a nursewould wear. She didn’t know why Marilyn wouldn’t get married in a church. There were plenty nearby. She didn’t like the weather in Boston; why was it so gray in June? Daisies weren’t a wedding flower; why not roses instead? And why was she in such a hurry, why get married now, why not wait awhile?

It would have been easier if her mother had used a slur. It would have been easier if she had insulted James outright, if she had said he was too short or too poor or not accomplished enough. But all her mother said, over and over, was, “It’s not right, Marilyn. It’s not right.” Leaving it unnamed, hanging in the air between them.

Marilyn pretended not to hear and took her lipstick from her purse.

“You’ll change your mind,” her mother said. “You’ll regret it later.”

Marilyn swiveled up the tube and bent close to the mirror, and her mother grabbed her by both shoulders suddenly, desperately. The look in her eyes was fear, as if Marilyn were running along the edge of a cliff.

“Think about your children,” she said. “Where will you live? You won’t fit in anywhere. You’ll be sorry for the rest of your life.”

“Stop it,” Marilyn shouted, slamming her fist against the edge of the sink. “This is my life, Mother. Mine.” She jerked herself free and the lipstick went flying, then skittered to a stop on the floor tiles. Somehow she had made a long red streak down her mother’s sleeve. Without another word, she pushed the door of the bathroom open, leaving her mother alone.

Outside, James glanced anxiously at his wife-to-be. “What’s wrong?” he murmured, leaning close. She shook her head and whispered quickly, laughingly: “Oh, my mother just thinks I should marry someone more like me.”Then she took his lapel in her fist, pulled his face to hers, and kissed him. Ridiculous, she thought. So obvious that she didn’t even need to say it.

Just days before, hundreds of miles away, another couple had married, too—a white man, a black woman, who would share a most appropriate name: Loving. In four months they would be arrested in Virginia, the law reminding them that Almighty God had never intended white, black, yellow, and red to mix, that there should be no mongrel citizens, no obliteration of racial pride. It would be four years before they protested, and four years more before the court concurred, but many more years before the people around them would, too. Some, like Marilyn’s mother, never would.

When Marilyn and James separated, her mother had returned from the ladies’ room and stood silently watching them from a distance. She had blotted her sleeve again and again on the roller towel, but the red mark still showed beneath the damp spot, like an old bloodstain. Marilyn wiped a smudge of lipstick from James’s upper lip and grinned, and he patted his breast pocket again, checking the rings. To her mother it looked as if James were congratulating himself.

Afterward, the wedding reduced to a slideshow in Marilyn’s memory: the thin white line, like a hair, in the justice’s bifocals; the knots of baby’s breath in her bouquet; the fog of moisture on the wineglass her old roommate, Sandra, raised to toast. Under the table, James’s hand in hers, the strange new band of gold cool against her skin. And across the table, her mother’s carefully curled hair, her powdered face, her lips kept closed to cover the crooked incisor.

That was the last time Marilyn saw her mother.





Which book you would like to read next? Comment Below.

Don't forget to share this post!


Popular posts from this blog

Wealth is What You Don't See

The art of staying young while growing old

‘Making People Glad To Do What You Want'