I felt different. I felt like a character in a book, like someone with something more than a life, like someone with a lifestyle.
“Are you one of the people who loves Mrs. Ramsay?” Edward asked me. I had to confess that I didn’t know who Mrs. Ramsay was; I couldn’t tell from the question whether I should be one of the people who loved her or one of the people who didn’t. “To the Lighthouse,” Edward said. “Virginia Woolf.” Virginia Woolf’s writing was just coming to the end of its long exile from public favor. I had never read anything by her; like most people I only knew her name from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. The movie had, in fact, been partially filmed at Smith a few years before. I watched it one winter evening at Sage Hall and enjoyed the thrilling disorientation of first seeing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor up on the glowing screen having a drunken fight on a swing, and then walking down the granite steps into the darkness and looking across the street at the actual swing hanging from the actual tree, empty and moving slightly in the chilly wind.
“Mrs. Ramsay dies in a parenthesis,” Edward says. “I can’t believe Virginia Woolf could let her die in a parenthesis.”
I went to the library and checked out To the Lighthouse. I didn’t get it. I asked Alice if she had ever read To the Lighthouse. “Everyone loves Mrs. Ramsay,” she said.
Although I delegated all the authority in the relationship to Edward, I in fact had more experience than he did. I was the first girl he had ever dated. As the semester came to a close and Edward was preparing to go home to New Jersey, where he had to take a summer course to make up for the one he had flunked during one of his Herculean acid-dropping sessions, and I was preparing to go back to Hanover where I had a job filing catalog cards in the college library, it was clear that if nothing else protocol dictated that we take our relationship to the next level.
“Elizabeth…” Edward said. The room was fragrant with the smell of the viburnum blossoms that he had clipped from one of the campus hedges, carefully placed around the small room in brandy snifters. He had put a handkerchief over the lampshade. We had been sitting for some time side-by-side, thighs touching, on the edge of his bed, drinking brandy out of water glasses stolen from the dining hall. “Elizabeth,” Edward said again. He sighed. “This is awkward.”
We sat in silence. The shadow of a tree trembled on the wall, illuminated by the streetlight.
“If it makes it any easier,” I said, not looking at him, “this isn’t the first time for me.”
Edward shifted and sighed. “No, actually, no that doesn’t make it any easier at all.”
“Maybe we should take our clothes off,” I finally said. So we did, and we slipped between the clean sheets of Edward’s single bed. We lay there in more silence and the glow from the handkerchief.
“I feel relaxed,” Edward finally said.
“That’s good,” I said encouragingly.
“No, you don’t understand. I mean I feel….relaxed.”
I sent a question mark out into the semi-darkness but I didn’t know what else to say. I think I must have dozed off during the long interval that followed. I know that the next time I looked at the clock it was time to catch the late bus back to Smith.
“I have to be in by midnight,” I said.
“All right.” And we dressed and he walked me through the sweet-smelling night to the bus stop.
“So what happened?” Helena asked the next day.
“Well nothing exactly,” I said. “But it was nice. Edward said that he felt relaxed.”
“Relaxed,” Helena said. “What do you mean relaxed?”
“I don’t know,” I said defensively. “Just relaxed. You know, like not nervous.”
We wrote to each other over the summer, but although I read each of Edward’s letters over and over again as though it had come fresh in the mail that day, the letters were infrequent and became less frequent as the summer went on. My brother T. had moved into my old room after I went off to college, so I was sleeping on the fold-out couch in the basement. I moved my stereo down there and lay in the dark listening to long mournful organ concertos, counting the days.
Although I had more experience than Edward—a single, ardent high school romance—I didn’t have much. It didn’t occur to me that he might have felt embarrassed and humiliated by that night. It certainly didn’t occur to me that he might be scared of me, that my worshipful expectations were putting pressure on him to perform in all sorts of ways. I didn’t figure any of that out until much later.
It also didn’t occur to me that it was basically over. When I got back to Smith I found it hard to get hold of Edward by phone. We saw each other some, but Edward said he was going to be really busy this semester studying. Then one night we had plans to go to a movie at Smith and Edward never showed up. I lay on the living room sofa reading through a stack of dog-eared Glamours and Mademoiselles until all the girls who had been out for the evening came in, waving back at their dates through the glass front door and giggling together as they went up the stairs.
The next day I was angry. For the first time in our relationship, I was really angry. It took me a while even to identify the shaky, hot, heavy feeling that sat in my chest like an anvil; in a strange way it felt good. I don’t know why I did the next thing I did except, perhaps, that it seemed like the sort of thing someone with a lifestyle would do. I called Western Union and arranged to send a telegram nine miles across the river.
“Let me read that back to you,” the Western Union lady said. I was standing in the back hall by the mailboxes, using the pay phone. “’Drop dead.’ That’s it? You can have five more words if you want you know, no extra charge.”
“No,” I said, “that’s all.”
“OK then, ‘Drop dead.’ It will be there in the next twelve hours.”
I waited a week for a reaction, but there wasn’t any. Finally, on a blustery cold day not long before Thanksgiving I got back on the bus and rode over to Amherst. That year Edward was living in a suite with his friends Albert, Jerry and Gene. They were all there when I knocked. Jerry answered the door. He looked embarrassed to see me.
“Elizabeth,” Edward said.
“I sent you a telegram,” I said. “I sent it a week ago.”
“I know,” he said. He looked puzzled. “I got it.”
Edward looked behind him and came out into the hall. “Let’s walk,” he said.
I don’t remember anything about the conversation, I only remember the long walk alone back to the bus stop under a low, steely-gray sky, angling my way across an empty playing field that seemed to get bigger the longer I walked. I saw myself in the closing scene of a movie, the camera looking down from above, pulling away and pulling away until I was nothing but a forlorn dot on a great empty field under a great empty sky.