From Taking My Life. Published by Talonbooks in 2011. Jane Rule is the writer of novels, essays and collections of short stories, many of which have been nominated for and won awards, including the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. She died in 2007.
In February, a month before my seventeenth birthday, I enrolled as a student at Mills. Mother came down from Reno to take me to Hink’s to buy the furnishings for my room. I had been at home with her for the week before, buying more clothes than I’d ever imagined owning. Never having gone to college herself, Mother enjoyed all the preparations even more than I did, and laughed when she later read the instructions to parents that she shouldn’t have come with me and influenced my choices. Mother has always been a follower of the dictum, “When all else fails, read the directions.”
I did not settle easily into my first term of college. I was not as grateful as I should have been for my “provisional” status, proud of my academic record and still righteously indignant at what had happened to me. But I was not as confident of myself as I tried to appear. I had read nothing but required texts, some poetry and books about the lives of doctors. I had to bluff a background assumed for those students professing an interest in literature until I could, with years of all-night reading, make up for my earlier indifference. At that time, I was a slow reader though I had a good memory for what I had read. I couldn’t spell.
I not only didn’t know what was expected of me in assignments, I didn’t know that anything in particular was expected. Asked to write a character sketch, I wrote three pages on Ann’s hands. The paper was returned with every line crossed out and a question mark at the end. In a humanities course which was supposed to challenge our cliché-ridden young minds to some originality, I was simply suspicious of questions like, “Does a drowning man really drown?” I didn’t want to be made a fool of by a bunch of condescending, smart-aleck male professors. In a course on religions of the Far East, the other students were all seniors in religion and philosophy with a vocabulary I didn’t understand at all. At the final exam, the kindly professor said, “Miss Rule, if you don’t understand the question, just write what you know about the main words in the sentences,” advice I followed for an hour of the three allotted. I had no more to say.
The remedial reading course I was required to take because of my low test scores was taught by a woman with a bad stammer which at times reactivated my own. Her advice, to read the first and last sentences of a paragraph and guess what was in between, was beyond my skill at reading poetry and religion texts, political argument and history.
I did not, of course, accept my failures humbly. I blamed the courses, the teachers, the texts, venting my anger and frustration on anyone who would listen, from impatient teachers, to my adviser, to the dean.
My complaints were not limited to my academic experience. I was amazed and appalled at the restrictions under which I was expected to live, signing in and out of the dorm, having to get signatures if I was to be away for the night. Because the only room available was a single on senior corridor, I was daily reminded of my lowly status and lack of privileges compared to the students I lived among. They were a friendly group, willing to sympathize with me and occasionally smuggle me out with them for a beer drinking evening. They’d grown restless, too, with the hall meetings at which we had to vote on such things as whether we’d wear cotton dresses and sandals; skirts, sneakers and loafers; or formal dresses, stockings and high heels at our next open house.
Though I was an independent spirit, I was a domestic infant. I not only didn’t know how to do my laundry (I sent my clothes out all through my years at college), but Mother had always washed my hair. I came from so private a household that the casual nudity in the washrooms was actually embarrassing to me. I contrived to find times when everyone else was out to use the facilities.
The suspicion, apparently so often entertained by so many people, that I was a sexual adventurer, seemed the more ludicrous for someone as young and physically shy as I was.
I did make friends of sorts. Alette, a Dutch girl who had spent three and a half years in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies, lived next door to me. When I was at my most impatient with the restrictions and requirements of my new life, she would counter my complaints by comparing the college to the camp. She would point out the abundance of quite good food, of hot water, the freedom to walk about the beautiful campus, to play tennis, ride, swim. The restrictions were, after all, only silly, not cruel. She wasn’t pious about it, simply detached and realistic. She was herself marking time until June when her fiancé would arrive from Australia and they would be married. She spent a lot of time writing letters to him.
Occasionally, she’d talk about her experience in the camp, being in charge for a time of rationing rice, a grain at a time, to the other women and children. She said she’d never again be as close to people as she had been then; it was a closeness with a price too high to pay voluntarily.
Sometimes I made her laugh. Perhaps that was why we could be friends. She could temper my bewildered anger, and I could distract her from a deep, private mourning. Thirty-five percent of the women had not survived. Fifty-five percent of the men in the adjacent camp died. Alette’s father had been beheaded.
Just behind the Mills campus was Oak Knoll Naval Hospital where Libby had been. Now it was filled with men in the final stages of rehabilitation, learning to use artificial limbs. Mills students were asked there as volunteers. I went once or twice, but I had no idea how to deal with their bitterness, the pressure of their need to be reassured sexually. I was afraid of them and ashamed to be. I could not as easily dismiss them as the sexually confident, socially ambitious Mills students did, as “creeps” and “weirdos.”
Our own self-obsessed and sheltered life in that oasis of beauty and luxury seemed to me peculiar and unreal. I took as many weekends as I was allowed to visit my grandmother and, therefore, Ann. The baby was born shortly after I arrived at college and named Carol after Ann’s favourite sister. When I was with them, I shared Ann’s preoccupation with her. In a way I didn’t much think about, Carol seemed somehow mine as well.
At her christening, however, I listened with some dismay at my duties as her godmother concerning her spiritual life.
Among the seniors, there were others like Alette announcing engagements, planning weddings. Most of them were also working hard to prepare for comprehensive exams and, if they were music majors, proficiency concerts. My corner room faced the music building. Perhaps some of the confusion of my own preparations had to do with nightly listening to the sounds from practice rooms: harpsichord, flute, piano, harp, voice. The seniors had time, too, for parties: receptions after concerts, major dinners with each faculty, engagement parties, balls. Sometimes I was included, but often I felt like a wardrobe mistress backstage, preparing all those attractive young women for their parts in a public show which had nothing to do with me. I did not usually mind.
As I had in high school, I invented a male figure for myself, this time called Sandy rather than David, far away not in the war but in New York. I received enough letters from Ann, addressed in her bold, androgynous hand, to make my story credible and excuse me my weekends without dates. The few details I offered about him, that he lived in a basement apartment two blocks from the Empire State Building and was an artist, were facts about Ann. Perhaps I should have invented him near at hand for Ann who still pressed me toward a required initiation into heterosexual life. I resisted on moral grounds, but, in fact, I had no gift or taste for men, except as friends.
Never having technically made love with Ann, thinking of her always as Henry’s wife and now Carol’s mother, I had no concept of being faithful to her, but I was both too preoccupied with her and too uncertain that anyone else would understand those feelings to wish any sort of intimacy.