As Lucy fought her way out of the Super Shuttle outside Meadow Hall two days after the New Year, a great gray cat quite nearly landed on her head. In class last fall she’d learned that Coleridge called drama a willing suspension of disbelief, the audience agreeing to set aside their critical faculties in order to be entertained. And so she chose to be enchanted by the falling cat, all fur and canny turquoise eyes, as by a blazing comet foretelling the coming of kings, and didn’t mind that it almost hit her. (Missed her by a whisker, as her Grandma Verna waiting tables back in Des Moines would have said.)
The cat in turn was perfectly oblivious to Lucy, as to the cry of “Ariel!” directed at it from above, and sauntered off with imposing disdain into the emerald-green grasses in front of the old dorm. Its laughing owners, on the balcony of one of the big sleeping-porches that Lucy had always envied terribly from her own dark, restricted corner room downstairs in Meadow’s fellow Orchard Hall, made signs of abject penitence down at her, like players on a balcony. A red-haired senior she knew just by sight, too lofty for acquaintance, in a snowy white caftan with gold bracelets on her bare white arms like golden snakes, and a male visitor in a tomato-red t-shirt. A glass pitcher of something that looked like margaritas sat on the wide wooden railing of the porch. They both had frosty glasses.
“He will keep jumping out of the basket,” the queenly woman said admiringly. “My tricksy spirit.” Lucy noticed now a woven basket on a coil of clothesline with a little tinkling bell on it that the man had been unreeling down the sun-splashed wall of the Spanish-style dorm building until it rested on the ground, half-hidden in the grasses. Illegal to have pets, Lucy knew (and surely margaritas?), but she was charmed by the transgression as well, and by the transgressors, often annoyed at being so tediously law-abiding herself—mostly from lack of opportunity or of imagination.
The whole unlikely scene, the backdrop of luxuriant green grasses and the spring-like warmth of the Northern California sunshine in the dead of winter required no less an effort at suspended disbelief than did the cat. Lucy had gotten off the plane she’d boarded in the dark that morning in the snowy, subzero Midwest, in a haze of bewilderment. She felt like a clod, unhappily weighed down by her heavy winter coat, the pushed-up sleeves of the itchy turtleneck sweater her sister Darlene had given her for Christmas, the awkward mittens that were always escaping her pockets. (Who wore mittens anymore, in the cool 1970s?) She was embarrassed further by her ugly hand-me-down suitcases, the gross yellow of mustard crusted around the edge of a squeeze bottle. They stood out like sore thumbs on the pavement, under the amused gaze of the courtly couple on the porch.
“Is it Aerial like the flying trapeze?” she wondered aloud, upwards, thinking she was being clever. Logical, if the cat preferred to fly.
“You’re kidding, right?” The woman looked down at her, with amused disbelief.
“Ariel with an ‘e,’ after Prospero’s tame spirit in The Tempest,” the rather gorgeous man explained kindly. “Clare’s smitten with Shakespeare.”
Lucy made the connection—Clare Runyan. She’d forwarded uncounted calls to her last semester, as dorm receptionist on Friday nights and weekends when the dorm was otherwise deserted, everyone away on dates or gone home to L.A. or somewhere over bridges for the weekend; when she wasn’t doing anything else and might as well earn a little pocket money.
“Does he come back on his own?”
“When he’s hungry. How like a male.”
The man made a comical face at Clare’s gibe.
“What kind is he?” A cat crossed with a cloud, Lucy fancied, this spirit descendent with bewitching turquoise eyes.
“A Himalayan. From loftier elevations than the circus, you see.” Dryly. As if bored with the conversation, Clare picked up pitcher and glass and drifted back into the room behind the sleeping porch, and the man, raising his own glass half-ironically at Lucy, followed.
Lucy dumped her suitcases inside the door of her dim, dingy corner room, just through the Orchard doorway from the living room shared with Meadow, feeling it more than ever lacking in charm and in character, furnished in mismatched hand-me-downs from her family, as homely as the mustard-yellow bags. The only thing she’d added was the poster of Bob Dylan (who she didn’t really like) that she’d picked up at Tower Records down by Ghirardelli Square for a huge discount since one corner was a little messed up. She’d felt left out, with all her dorm mates buying things.
Back to reality, back to her own resources. The enchantment over, those inconstant revels ended (magic potions and enchanted cats). The dorm was utterly quiet, like on those weekend nights when she was the only one there.
That January all of Lucy’s friends were off to London for Intensive Theatre, or, in Marissa and Barb’s case, to the Cité internationale universitaire for Paris in the Twenties. But Lucy was stuck in Oakland for the three weeks of her sophomore January Term, and even the prospect of Royal Scandals, the most alluring class she could find to sign up for, didn’t console her. Even having the miraculous sunshine of golden California, instead of the Midwestern snow she’d flown from that morning, was like the taste of ashes in her mouth, now that she was on her own, here in this room which the sun never touched, the vision of the intriguing couple impossibly far off in the other wing of the dorm.
For dinner Lucy had to walk up the bothersome hill to Founders’ Commons in the cluster of new dorms, since there weren’t enough students around to justify keeping each of the old dorm dining rooms open during January Term—a kind of limbo or time-out between semesters, removed from everyday serious work, when you could play at whimsical, inconsequential things. She went as soon as they opened at 5:00; she was on Midwest time and hadn’t eaten anything but cereal for breakfast and the TV-dinner-like airplane meal. She ate by herself, having seen no one she knew, and all the while pretended not to be keeping an eye out for the couple from upstairs. She was done in fifteen minutes, the whole glum evening stretching ahead.
She thought about calling Mel, her boyfriend from high school who she was still “with” though he was back in Iowa and she was here, but knew he’d be at choir practice at Faith Lutheran, staying afterwards for coffee and doughnuts. It was so hard to find things to say to him on the phone. What she did here felt unreal and somehow silly next to his solid accomplishments and plans, the bank job he’d been so happy to find.
She couldn’t bear the silence back in her colorless room. She’d go to the Orchard Library and play the piano. Chopin’s preludes would be just right for her melancholy mood.
When she walked down the hall, she was annoyed to find the library already occupied. The lights blazed and a surprising fire crackled in the fireplace. She didn’t want to practice her faltering notes in front of an audience. But as she turned to go she realized the intruders were Clare Runyan and her male friend from the Meadow porch.
“Nick.” He looked up at her from beside the fireplace where he was studiously grilling a skewer threaded with pieces of onion and peppers and mushrooms. The charred vegetables smelled heavenly, and their juices sizzled down onto the logs. Of course, the regal couple wouldn’t walk uphill to the new dorms for meals, as Lucy grudgingly had on her own. They’d grill things in the Orchard fireplace instead.
Clare was settled regally beside Nick in one of the overstuffed armchairs, sipping something from an English bone china teacup on a saucer patterned with full-blown roses. The firelight enhanced her clotted-cream skin and light red hair—strawberry blonde, she’d tell Lucy later. So, she collected things that were strawberry blonde: a cocktail made with vodka, cherry brandy, cola, and cream; a breed of sunflower; a 1941 film with Rita Hayworth and James Cagney.
It wasn’t tea, it was tequila again—”reposado“—ice-cold, the bottle frosted.
“You have a freezer?”
Lucy looked an inquiry at him.
“I’m up at Underwood; I share an apartment with three other art students.” One of the male graduate students, then.
“What are you doing this J-Term?” she asked Clare.
“An independent study on Shakespeare, with Dr. Trimble.”
“She’s teaching my Royal Scandals class,” Lucy said.
“I’ll be here writing for two of the weeks, and then I’m off to the Folger Shakespeare Library to do research.”
Nick said he would be around all month making prints and preparing for a show at the art gallery.
Clare’s subject was the question of identity and role-playing in Twelfth Night. “Viola losing her identity in the shipwreck, posing as the page Cesario, loving Orsino, who in turn is crazy for Olivia, who falls head over heels for false Cesario and marries by mistake his twin brother, who seems to have betrayed his rescuer, Antonio, who’s been fooled by Cesario as well. And there’s the overturned identity of poor Malvolio, Maria’s pretending to be Olivia when writing him the fatal letter, the real fool posing as a priest. It shows how people spend their lives playing part after part. How most often identity is really just illusion and self-delusion combined.”
Lucy was envious. She had no idea what her subject was, what she was or wanted to be, what in the world she’d make of her life. She’d obviously never be a concert pianist. She thought it would be nice to be a Shakespeare scholar, but she’d thought too that she would like to study architecture—if only it didn’t involve all that math. She’d done a paper in the fall on women architects: Julia Morgan, who designed the bell tower on campus, which Lucy’d attempted to sketch for the front page; Mary Colter, who did things for the Park Service in the southwest; Lou Henry Hoover, designing her house at Stanford (North African Algerian, or Pueblo). She’d gotten just a B on it, but she had really liked reading about the distinctive women. Maybe because she had so little distinction herself.
She liked her J-Term class, though Dr. Trimble had a little coterie of favorites and she clearly wasn’t among them. As the sunny days spun out, like flax to gold, she read outside, became immersed in The Daughter of Time, then Mary Queen of Scots.
Her attention was mainly elsewhere. Passing as if by accident through Meadow Hall each time she came back from classes or lunch or the bookstore, pretending nonchalance, playing with fate, Lucy found no sign of her quarry for two dull, plodding days. But then on Wednesday she heard music all the way downstairs, and venturing up, was thrilled to find Nick carrying a plate heaped with chopped vegetables into the little corner kitchen. He invited her in to watch him assemble an Indonesian vegetable curry with tamarind and lemongrass, coriander and turmeric. The extent of Lucy’s dorm cooking had been Top Ramen with bottled spaghetti sauce, one Saturday before Thanksgiving when dinner had been the dreaded wheat germ loaf and she and Barb had been ravenous after refusing to eat it.
The Supremes’ Greatest Hits came out the open door of Clare’s room. Later, they put on The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll, while eating the delicious curry—Lucy too, stammering thanks for being included, drinking iced blue agave from blue shadowed deserts.
The perfect life, Lucy thought longingly. The perfect couple. They knew exactly what they were and what they wanted. And they got to occupy the perfect room, with its big sleeping porch. A luxuriant natural Flokati rug (Flokatis dating back to the 5th century Roman province of Macedonia, used by Vlach shepherds in the Pindos mountains, Clare told her offhandedly), Laura Ashley bedding on a massive bed, pale blue walls covered with art prints, huge speakers, a rocking chair and ottoman (or tuffet?) in the same floral fabric as the comforter and pillows, a set of antique silver hairbrushes, twelve bone china teacups and eleven saucers (one not having survived being used as an ashtray by Clare’s porch mate during a party), and a full OED with magnifying glass. It was Illyria, indeed, a play-acting realm, where absolutely anything could happen.
Back in her room, she thought about the similarities. Viola (Lucy), posing as the page Cesario, loved Duke Orsino (Nick), who was surely in love with his Lady Olivia (Clare), who was drawn in turn by false Cesario, ardent intermediary and messenger—who talked of others’ love, but had to disguise her true feelings. Clare was amused by Lucy, by her appreciative wonder, her admiration, her raptures. Clare needed an audience, a court.
Lucy felt her own identity in doubt. Dr. Trimble never deigned to notice her, or what little she dared to say in class, while Clare was her much-touted protégé. Clare and Nick befriended her merely on sufferance, because they were almost the only ones around—it was as if the three of them had the dorm to themselves. Poor Mel, back home, was secondary to the most compelling plot, like Feste, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the clownish suitor.
Everything was unsettled that month, a queasy suspended reality of hope and pleasurable despair. Her class unsettled her as well. Royal Scandals. What was Mary Queen of Scots’s connection with the Casket Letters and the murder of Lord Darnley? Was Shakespeare really Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford? Did Richard III murder the little princes, despite the persuasive argument in The Daughter of Time? Lucy was passionately among the dissenters. Clare, with her look of the young Queen Elizabeth, coldly defended the Tudors in all cases—against Mary, against Richard, even trying out the idea that the queen had penned the plays herself, toying with a male identity. That was surely why the theme of disguise and gender-swapping came up so often, she argued.
All too soon Clare had flown off to The Folger to study the First Folio, with cashmere sweaters packed in her elegant leather bags, satchel and hold-all in a creamy caramel. She vanished on a Sunday into Nick’s green Alfa Romeo Spider for the drive across the Bay Bridge to the San Francisco Airport.
For the next few days Lucy found herself wandering forlornly with a book from class to the bell tower and library, back to her gloomy room, and up to meals and back, most often detouring past the art studios.
On Thursday she finally saw Nick, coming out into the courtyard of the gallery, sun glorying against the white walls as if on a Greek island. His red t-shirt was dazzling too, the red of the postcard that had just arrived from Paris for her and made her feel excluded, sad, a painting chosen at random by Marissa or by Barb at one of the museums they wrote that they got to visit almost every day.
“Hey, Lucy!” Nick was smiling at her, and Paris faded to nothing.
The postcard slipped out of the notebook she’d tucked it into, and he reached down lithely to pick it up.
She’d been embarrassed outside the post office to be seen looking at the brazenly sensuous lovers on a circus horse, and blushed now, disconcerted, as he studied the wonderful painting that she’d love to lose herself in. His fingers, she noticed, were long, inky.
“Can I see some of your prints?” she asked, trying to cover her awkward self-consciousness. She hoped she wouldn’t be sorry—hate them or be shocked by what they pictured.
He led her inside, past several rooms with artists intent on their work, into the light-filled studio where he was laying out his prints, trying to choose among them for the month-end show. He stood right next to her, almost touching, as he showed her a series of bewitching cloudscapes. A calendar of skies and clouds, he explained. Trying to jot down the atmospheric moods of the last month or two. Washes of bone-white, nacreous and opalescent whites, replicating cloud; then nuanced stormy colors he recited off for her (though they were printed also in a tidy calligraphic hand along the bottom edge, after the date)—bruised plum and peat smoke, slate and abalone, colors found in the feathers of sandpipers or wood ducks, snow geese or sage grouse, Inca doves or peregrine falcons, cliff swallows, willow ptarmigan.
“My mother is an ornithologist,” Nick laughed, rolling his eyes, “and when I was grounded and couldn’t surf or ride my bike to the Getty, I spent more time than I like to remember looking through her bird books.”
There were sunsets too—rosy, intense; stretches of ocean (“I grew up in Malibu”), often hard to distinguish from the skies. And offset (punctuation marks, grace notes) against the play of the weather and light, tiny inked-in figures. Two children with an air-bound ball, a figure with a dog, a dog chasing the ball, tiny seabirds on inky lines of rock or Pointillist-inspired sand. A sailboat with bare masts and lines, off-center. Another, sails full blown, about to vanish over the print’s edge.
Lucy was blown away by their exquisite beauty and surprised by how different they were from what she would have expected from Nick, though his fine bones, cliff-swallow grace, were of the same nature. Treacherous thoughts—so she said she how much she loved everything he’d shown her, and could never possibly choose just a few; then asked, carefully casual, “How’s Clare?”
She couldn’t imagine the Folger Shakespeare Library and Washington, DC, any more clearly than Paris or London. Couldn’t imagine being in one of those places where winter was still full-blown.
“She’s staying with her half-brother, Corin, in his dorm room at Georgetown University. He’s brilliant, it sounds like—studying one of those boring adult things, like Politics or Law. The way she describes everything he’s doing makes me feel like I’m in playschool still.” He indicated the bespattered studio, the stack of spoiled prints in the recycling bin.
“No—your work is amazing. I’m the one who can’t do anything that counts.” Grandma Verna’s praise of her blueberry pancakes, or the Für Elise she’d played for high school baccalaureate were obviously not worth mentioning.
Lucy didn’t want to leave, wanted to sit under the open windows with her book and pretend she was reading while really watching Nick translating skies, but guessed she shouldn’t interrupt him any longer. About to thank him for the private show and go away, her heart leaped when he said,
“I’ve got to go to Meadow to feed Ariel. Are you going that way?”
They walked together through the courtyard between Olney Hall and Orchard, detouring past the weathered stone satyr with his panpipes beside the small pond there, graceful and old as time. Lucy thought it must be more beautiful than any statue in the Louvre or other big city museum.
The cat was delighted to see Nick, wrapping herself around his bare ankles above gray (dove gray) canvas deck shoes, but ignored Lucy regally, as Dr. Trimble too could do, turning disdainfully away.
But for a precious ten days Lucy had Nick to herself, and came miraculously into bloom, like the earliest spring flowers were beginning to. Or was at least playing the part convincingly, she told the doubtful figure in her closet mirror.
The script, foreign to her at first, was intriguing and not a little strange. One afternoon after a long, murmured phone call with Clare, Nick mused, “She says that Corin looks just like her; tells her he’s sexually ambivalent.”
What did that mean? Lucy could almost imagine a note of jealousy in Nick’s offhand comment.
All that they did was strange and wondrous too. Drinking reposado tequila with apricot brandy and juice squeezed from plump limes, with lots of ice, in the Orchard library, and grilling a whole trout with mesquite chips over the fire while Nick named all the colors in trout skin before it came out of the water. Playing duets of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Send in the Clowns,” and “Where or When” on the piano, Nick turning the pages of the sheet music—what she thought of as night club music, basement rooms heavy with smoke and sin. In the same vein, drinking way too much and ending up together back in Clare’s room, in the king-sized bed, under the Laura Ashley comforter, where they both must have passed out. But waking, skin to skin, on the soft sheets, in that stolen place and time, and making love as the morning offered, and then again, and without hesitation skipping class, skipping lunch up the hill, staying in bed all day, until another night had come and they got up just long enough to make and eat some scrambled eggs.
Once during that first day, when Lucy woke, dozy with dreams, Nick’s arm across her pale belly, a lovely sky blue streak of watercolor ink across his fine-boned hand, she heard in the recesses of her head, like a soliloquy offstage, lines spoken to unriddle this play she impossibly found herself in, the phrase it had all started with—willing suspension of disbelief.
She wanted to say to the lovely naked man between the sheets with her, like the disguised Cesario, “I have unclasp’d to thee the book even of my secret soul,” but was afraid of his laughing, rejecting the unwanted offer of her inmost self. This was much too fragile and new.
She guiltily avoided taking Mel’s calls or returning them, during that spellbound time, but finally had to talk to him when he called back after leaving a long, rambling message early the second week, letting her know his mother had been taken to the hospital, dangerously sick—having some serious problems in her last trimester of pregnancy. Lucy had been astonished that she’d even think about having another baby—it would be her fifth, twenty whole years younger than Mel. He told her he had moved back home, to help his sisters with the house, and give his dad a hand with the dairy. He really liked the job he’d gotten at the bank, she knew, but he said now it didn’t matter, really—it had been mostly for her, and she’d be okay if he took the job his father was about to offer him, right? And no, there wasn’t time for choir, when he had to get up so much earlier each day.
Lucy really did feel bad about it all, when she hung up the phone; but he had kept acting as if she was the girl she’d been, the girl he thought she was, and she was forced to be unkind, dismissive—radiantly changed, sure as she was that she had an identity apart from him, apart from what she’d been back home before college; keenly aware of having become someone a lot more interesting who had nothing to do with dairies and church groups and going steady with your high school beau who might well never have heard of Mary Queen of Scots or Marc Chagall or Malibu or lemongrass.
And all the while she’d been listening to Mel’s bad news on the downstairs dorm phone, not wanting to hear anything about his mother’s at-risk baby and waiting for him to get done sounding censorious and just hang up, Nick was down the hallway in her room, her bed. She’d draped it with a new Indian cotton spread from Berkeley, where he’d driven her over the weekend with the Alpha Romeo’s top down, the cloth dyed with brilliant colors she imagined tattooed on her sinful skin, her newly supple body, in the words of poetry, “a smoke made out of lovers’ sighs.” Above the bed she’d taped some old Chagall posters he’d found somewhere and given her—from the Metropolitan Opera (Lincoln Center) in 1966, and Menton (Switzerland?) in 1968, and then a copy of a lithograph, The Song of Songs, in 1970. Lovers and fantasies, bouquets and circus scenes, winged horses, moons. Lovers again. The flying trapeze she’d imagined “Aerial” to be, the cat crossed with a cloud—anything possible in Chagall’s whimsical visions.
Another day they drove across the bridge to the Legion of Honor art museum on its promontory over the ocean, and on up across another bridge, the magical and aerial Golden Gate, to the Pelican Inn on Muir Beach near Muir Woods, a kind of English country pub, to have tea and scones on the lawn with delicious butter and jam (not the margarine she was used to).
She got an A- on a paper about Bothwell, Mary Stuart’s last husband and lover, feeling the dark Scotsman somehow in Nick’s dark northern looks.
She told herself, over and over, “Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.” And, “Nothing that is so, is so.”
And soon enough, it wasn’t so. Clare was back, and Nick was gone. He had told Lucy (gently, she thought, touching her stricken face before he turned to go) he had no choice but to tell Clare that they’d gotten carried away by too many margaritas, while she was on the other coast.
“Yes, maybe it was some kind of transformation,” Clare agreed not unkindly in the Meadow hallway outside her big upstairs room when Lucy caught her to apologize and stammer out what had been foremost in her thoughts—an explanation she imagined Clare the Shakespeare scholar would be sure to understand.
“But not Twelfth Night. You’ve seemingly confused it with another play.” She considered a moment, setting out some canned salmon, nubby bones and all, on the bone china saucer for Ariel, the Himalayan’s turquoise eyes fixed on her queenly face.
“Wouldn’t you say it’s more like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Bottom has been turned into an ass, and for a few hours the fairy queen Titania fancies she loves him?” She added, as she closed the door, “I’ve put a lot of thought this past couple of weeks into Shakespeare’s uses of self-delusion in his plays.”
Lucy told herself that everything would be okay again when all her friends were back and regular classes had started. After all, that was what January Term was all about—a momentary change of pace, a chance to try ill-fitting wings and feathered rhinestone masks, incongruous disguises fished out of the dress-up chest. It was a kind of play they’d put on, and as was the nature of the theater, the month’s run ended, scenery and props were struck, costumes slipped off, cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces dissolved as the word-sorcerer himself decreed. It wasn’t as if any of it had been real.