To be a plain woman is for the most part to be largely an invisible one. My looks fluctuated with my fortunes. I’d been pretty enough, enough of the time to get used to the attentions of men, enough so that I noticed the absence of them now they were withdrawn. While a quasi-public persona, I was always fussing in my mind about how I looked and if I was getting my due attention, gauging where I fell in the rank order. But now, mired in no man’s land, that tension flowed out of me like grain out of a sack, leaving just the empty bag. Working at the library, I sat in the bowels of the old building in front of a computer, cataloguing incoming material; whom was I supposed to look good for? Once in a while, due to the ebb and flow of staff, I was farmed out to hang the daily newspapers or sit at the door checking people’s briefcases as they left Room 316. Either way, I garnered no admirers.
This was my world. The advantage, I felt, of existing on such a low level was that it gave one a clearer sense of reality: cast in among the ever-shifting staff of work-study students, practically imperceptible, people revealed more of their true nature to me during that time than ever before; there was no nervousness or need to impress; they just weren’t that concerned. They were as casual as if no one was home. This was the exact opposite of being with a celebrity—then no one acted like themselves, and you never knew where you stood.
So I sank into, gave myself over to the softness of the numbing drone, to the immunity of not caring. My hair grew long and lank. Without style, it either hung unbecomingly or was bundled back out of the way, exposing my pale unmade-up moonface. I gained weight stealthily, steadily, taking sensual satisfaction in eating junk and finding peace dozing curled up in chairs. I seldom read or listened to music; I watched TV. It authenticated my comatosia—I absorbed the waves, but sent no signal out. All the prettiness in my face lay buried beneath the phlegm; the light in my eyes dimmed.
So this was making your own way, being on your own. Not all it was cracked up to be. It could be grim. But I liked this bleary drowsy dreariness, the hardening concrete of inertia, making each day exactly the same as the one before—filling in the blanks—being able to put another tally mark up on the wall. I thought the point was to see how many short even lines I could rack up. Like floating on the mercy of pain killers after a great trauma, I was so tired, and I was so comfortable wafting through the white noise, I thought I’d like to go on like this forever.
But Morgan, true to her nature, unexpectedly decamped one day without adequate notice and without lifting a finger to find someone else to replace her. Now we would have to interview for a new boarder to share the rent; none of us could afford a larger share. Whenever anyone flew the coop, waves of silent anxiety would sweep through the house. ‘Another got away and I’m gonna be stuck here forever,’ was the thinking. We would’ve kept all the escapees here, stuck in the mud with us.
To be mistress of our own space is all we really wanted. To open the refrigerator door and see that all the food was one’s own, not packaged and separated on the shelves into little unassailable fiefdoms. To handle objects not branded with the proprietariness of someone else’s surname. ‘Never enough money for a home of my own. Time is draining from me, my youth slipping by.’ Now there was the tedious interview process for a new inmate and the inevitable spate of obscene phone calls that would, Karen assured us, follow when our number appeared in the paper advertising for a roommate for an all-female house.
Several weeknight evenings were depressingly taken up with these interviews. The first serious candidate was actually a very nice woman, and we were going to accept her, but at the last minute she sprung the fact that she had a cat, a black cat called Poppy. I was charmed (dear Izzie, dear Ben . . .); it would bring life into the house, make it a home, and I suggested we give her a try, but immediately I was shot down. No, the Heits would never allow it, and the cat would scratch the upholstery. Besides, she was a sneak, she should have told us up front, Karen pronounced, though I, for one, understood her strategy.
“A total waste of time,” Meredith sniffed.
Next came a series of strange people, too strange, really, to consider, and after that, just as we were getting desperate, rent due, came Jean. I liked her immediately—I liked her a lot—a nurse with Medicine Nonsectarian, part of the International Refugee Council. She had spent time abroad serving alongside her husband in various refugee camps. Recently divorced, she did mostly administrative and recruiting work now, up and down the East Coast, on the road most of the time, speaking to various nurses groups. Her ex-husband was keeping their old place; she just needed a place to crash two, three days out of the week. She wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. Her life seemed romantic to me, the work of her life noble—abandoned by men, helping others, on the road, on her own—a nomadic angel to the dispossessed and miserable. She made me ashamed of my fondness for the humdrum. To have someone like her after Morgan would be a fabulous thing; she stirred something long dormant in me.
“Do you have secret pets?” Karen asked. “If so, please say so now.”
“I’m on the road three to five days a week,” she reminded us.
We huddled after she left. “I vote for her,” I said. Karen and Meredith were not so taken.
“She’s way way way too old. She must be like, what, 32, 35? Why would someone in her thirties want to rent a room in a house with a bunch of girls? What’s wrong with her? And we’re gonna be the ones to find out? Uh-uh.” Karen made it sound as if Jean had a disease.
I turned to Meredith.
“I think not.”
I chaffed against this small-minded democracy I had entered into, irritated to the bleeding point. I had finally had it. I wanted something better, someone better. I broke my suspended cobwebbed trance. I threw my weight behind Jean, arguing quite strenuously.
“Look, this is it! How long are we gonna screw around?” Surprise at my uncharacteristic outburst of feeling caused the identical expression to register on both my housemates’ faces. (What’s this?)
“She’s only going to be here a little bit; you’ll have the downstairs bathroom practically to yourself.” This to Meredith, who occupied the only downstairs bedroom and who quickly realized that, at night at least, the lower level of the house would be hers. That point was the selling point with her, and Jean was in.