I have been waiting for the day my master’s degree in
literature would return me something. So
far the wait has been very, very long. But still one hopes, unless one is dead.
The degree cost me ten thousand dollars and the worst year of my
life. In the morning I would push myself
out the door in Hoboken onto its desolate streets, walk half a mile to the PATH
station, change trains at Herald Square, rattle up the left side of Manhattan,
propel myself through the great black gates of the august university, then into
some amphitheater smelling of epochal sweat and filled with the drone of
Stanley Fish congratulating himself on being thus. At the end, a hundred students—my
compatriots—would flow outdoors, and disappear.
They vanished into the molecules of breeze that animated in slow motion the
leaves of the ancient trees. I never
knew any of their names. I never figured
out where they went.
In the library I would look for the books I needed. They had all been checked out to members of
the faculty years before, never to return.
At the end of the day I reversed the morning’s process, capping it with
the sound of the deadbolt on my apartment door slammed home. I was prisoner and guard both, the sentence
Those were the days when books were as exciting as
restaurants are now, the hard-to-get reservation and overwrought morsel on a
Pacific ocean of plate—foam, reduction of berries, moss, possibly small twigs
made cunningly edible and written about breathlessly—more important than life
itself. The city’s used book stores (the pleasantly dirty shelves of the Barnes
& Noble annex, the Strand, visited worshipfully,
hopefully) gave me long happy hours.
Still, I couldn’t get enough. I
wanted to go to high church for books.
If college was good, university would be better.
The disabusement of this quaint notion was as quick and
violent as a two-by-four to the head: college was indeed about reading books, but
university was about reading political currency. How well can you rephrase the party platform?
(The more abstrusely the better.) This
was not what I wanted! Moreover, I did
not want to not do what I wanted in the company of . . . no one.
I had not made it into Yale.
My boyfriend, however, did. On a
full ride. My visits there were drenched
in envy, though I could pretend for a weekend that I too belonged here. We sat with other students from the comp lit
department in cozy booths in the student center, talking for hours; we
separated to do work in the library of our choice. Sometimes I would retire to the Beinecke Rare
Book Library, filled with a creamy cool light emanating from the impossibly
thin Vermont marble that were its windows; such was the magic of this place
that stone could be unstoned, gracefully relieved of its rocky essence. Sometimes I would find a desk in the
magisterial Sterling Memorial Library, a cathedral of books wherein, as
described by the university, ”almost every available wood, stone, and plaster
surface, is carved [with] a design that will remind the viewer of the dignity
and significance of learning in general and of libraries in particular.” The significance fell on us heavy as fur
mantles. Lined up with precision on the
shelves set aside for each class were the soldiers of essential texts: twelve
pristine copies of the book I so desperately needed, the single copy of which
had vanished forever from Butler Library back home. I loved Yale, but I wish I had never seen it.
That I chose to write a thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—a work whose words and story both
utterly escape me now—seems a testament to my state of mind: lost. I felt pretty much nothing for medieval
literature. One of the readers claimed
she could not understand what I wrote because my grammar was so broken. So was I.
I had told myself I would write about Moby-Dick in my second year, and finally get my mind back, but
there was to be no second year. The
loneliness of it all had done me in. I would
crumple their letter, exegetically read as congratulating me on having passed
the first-year hazing, which offered a full scholarship and teaching
assistantship to continue on to the doctorate, and toss it into the empty metal
olive barrel that was my wastecan.
Even grad students need some wind-down, and at night when I
was exhausted from the day’s wrestling matches with public transportation and
literary theory, I fell into the consoling embrace of Mary Tyler Moore. There were back-to-back reruns of the old
show into the night on my minute black-and-white TV. More even than Yale I wished to matriculate
in Mary’s world. Her travails always
ended in twenty-five minutes and with much smiling. She perennially rose to the top, with hair
and shirtwaist unmarred. I fell asleep
to her voice.
Halfway through the second term, having one day miraculously
found a seat on the PATH train and thus the opportunity to take the strap of my
Danish book bag off the shoulder it was excavating, I looked up from my
book. The person standing there had
said, “Excuse me. Aren’t you in my
Edward Said seminar?” (The one in which
the teacher had asked, “Who would like to be a generalist?” and I
simultaneously discovered I had the only raised hand and that the question had
been ironically rhetorical. Of course no
one, only me.)
Jim became the only friend I made that year, but he was the
only one I needed, because Jim contained multitudes. It did not take us long to discover our basic
commonality: not that we lived in the same small burg far from our hopes and
aspirations, but that we both needed Mary Tyler Moore. He phoned every morning, and we relived what
episodes we had stayed awake long enough to consider for essential life
lessons. When we met for beers at the
Elysian to discuss intractable educational dilemmas, we found a shortcut to the
answer, always the answer. What would
I have long had the belief that someday, although I can’t
foresee when, my terminal MA will lift me from a dark and empty sea before it
swallows me forever; it will be a lifesaver thrown from a small boat that has
happened by. It had to have been for
something, the loan I worked to pay off for years, and the year that almost
It has not happened yet; there is still time. Until then, I will remember I have lived many
lives, and when one is over another always begins. I have a witness to this usual miracle. My friend Jim. But I have not watched Mary in years, and I