"Remember, you have type 3 hair, so promise me you'll use a good conditioner, and don't borrow some other girl's," she said.
"Okay, Mother, you can leave now, my hair and I will be fine."
"And sweetie, the most important part of this year is rush. So start researching the sororities early, and focus on a few superior ones that you think you really have a good shot at."
"And don't fall into the habit of snacking. The 'freshman 15' has doomed more girls' chances of getting that M.R.S. than drugs or getting you-know-what."
"Okay, Mama! You can go--"
"My little girl, gone to college--" she started to tear up.
"Not here, Mother!" I said, getting more formal again.
"Right," she said, and pulled herself together. Years of competition-- she had been Miss Low-Till Farming in 1977 and Miss Soybean in 1978, and I had been Miss Cledmore County and come in third at the state finals last year-- meant that she knew how to conquer her emotions and put on a brave face. "Have a wonderful time and find a wonderful boy, preferably pre-med or business school," she said, kissed me on the cheek, and then there was just the clacking of her heels down the hallway.
I looked around my private room-- Mother had insisted on paying for one, she was very concerned that I not end up with a roommate who might stand in the way of landing the right husband. Well, considering how well she had done with Daddy, and Stepdaddy Jim, and Stepdaddy Brad, she could afford to give her little girl the very best. It didn't entirely have Mother's personal touch-- she hadn't had time to paint it dusty rose-- but it did look like a flower factory had exploded in here. That was her style, for sure.
I unpacked some things and thought back, a little nostalgically, on my last few days in Croweville before moving up here to the university in Sparta. My last date with Trent had gone badly. He knew he was being dumped, that Mother wanted me to find someone more collegiate than a guy who was likely to work in his dad's body shop the rest of his life, so he tried to finally get me to do it with him.
I got out of it, as usual, by giving him a BJ-- Mother had taught me early on that there were ways to keep a boy happy without risking a baby-- but as I worked on his thick, bumpy, stinky little pole until he splattered his goo onto the Kleenex I kept handy, I couldn't help but think that this was a pretty high price to pay just for having a boyfriend to go places with once in a while. Would sex with the future doctor husband of Mother's dreams be any more satisfying? Or would it just be the price I paid for the house and the cars and the trips, too?
That night, as I lay in bed on my first night away from home, I thought about the path Mother had laid out for me-- for the first time, or at least it seemed like the first time. It was so simple, and it had worked for her so well, that I had never questioned it-- find the first husband, if things didn't work out encourage him to have a fling by cutting him off in the bedroom, then catch him in the act, big settlement, find next husband, repeat as often as necessary. It sounded like a great plan, except for one thing-- what about love?
Where did love fit into it? Where did finding your soulmate and growing old together come into it? Mother had nobody but me now, and now I was gone from her house, at least, if hardly her control. Was that how I saw myself, 20 years or so from today-- sending my girl off to college and coming home to a big, admittedly very big and nice, but empty home?
Suddenly college was making me very sad, and scared.
The social life in a dorm is so busy in the first few weeks that I had no trouble meeting lots of boys. But there were so many of them and they were so much the same-- all bony elbows and pawing-- that I think my doubts started to show. I heard a couple of stray comments about "boring" or "stuck up" or "doesn't seem interested." And you know what, they were right. I was just kind of freaked out by the whole thing-- that I was supposed to look over all these young stud bulls and decide which one had the best earning potential for me, and then rope him and brand him. ("Ring by spring...")
Meanwhile, I was kind of getting into the school part of college, believe it or not. High school work had always been easy for me, but for the first time I had professors who weren't just teaching to the dumbest kids in the class but actually forcing me to think, analyze things, use my head. Mother had always warned me about seeming too smart, that that rarely helped a girl get a man, but suddenly, smartness didn't seem such a liability, even if it was a surprise for them sometimes to hear something bright come out of a tall blonde with good beauty habits.
So I kind of let my participation in the social part slide and focused on my classes for a bit, as much as that would have disappointed Mother. We talked every day and I could tell she was getting a little frustrated at how vague my answers were about who I was seeing, and what social events I was planning to attend in the next week.
One afternoon I went to the campus bookstore in search of books by an author one of my professors had been talking about, that sounded like it had some interesting things to say about sex. I only knew how the name was pronounced, not how it was spelled, and I wasn't having much luck finding the author on the shelf, so I tried to find somebody who could help me. The first guy was helping another customer, so I kept wandering in search of someone who could help and soon found myself in the kids' section.
Then I saw her.
What was it about her that struck me so? It certainly wasn't beauty. She was overweight and, at that moment, displaying an ample crack in the back of her jeans as she sat on the floor, shelving a stack of picture books. It wasn't style-- she had wildly unkempt black curly hair, black hornrim glasses and no makeup, all of which gave her a certain boyish look.
No, what wowed me was that she seemed free. Free of all the things I'd come to school with-- the need to dress up like every day was a job interview (which, to Mother's mind, it was), to impress boys, to be somebody I didn't know if I wanted to be.
She looked up at me. "Can I help you?"
"Yes, I'm looking for a book on a French philosopher-- it's something like Fooko or Fuckall--"
"Feuh-kohhh," she said, trailing the last syllable out.
"Right," I said.
Then she kind of smirked at me and said "I'll see if we have something ... for you." As if someone like me was never, in a million years, going to be capable of understanding this big-brained French dude. I felt my face flush-- fortunately my blush would disguise the fact-- as she led me to the philosophy section.
We looked at the books for a minute-- she reached for one called Foucault For Dummies and I dismissed it with a haughty glare-- and eventually arrived at a thin introductory volume. All the while, though, I was looking at her-- her fat breasts loose under her Obama T-shirt, a roll sticking out on one side of her hips, her ample butt squishy in her jeans. There was something monstrous about her, large and hairy as she was, something repellent and yet magnetic, the sight of a woman my age so completely devoted to a different way of presenting herself to the world. I tried to imagine letting myself go like that-- no, it was too awful. And yet I couldn't tear away.
I took the book and thanked her, and as I walked away she sort of shook her head a little and smirked again, as if in amazement at the exotic creature she'd met today.
I devoured the book and was back at the bookstore within two days. I was eager to tackle Foucault's major work, The History of Sexuality, but just as importantly, I wanted to buy it from her, show her that I had been capable of reading such a work and understanding it.
I had thought about her a lot in the past two days, trying to puzzle out what it would be like to be such a person. To present yourself that way to the world. Could I do that? Could I make such a radical change to myself and what I was here for? Could I stand the conniption fit that Mother would throw as a result?
I wandered the aisles, Foucault in hand, but didn't see her. Resigned, I found the philosophy department, and looked through it, but didn't seem to see volume one, The Will to Knowledge. I leafed through the second volume, but it was about ancient Greece, and seemed less interesting.
"Still looking for Foucault?"
I turned around and there she was, just as I'd remembered her-- rough and unkempt. Yet there was something lovely about her pale skin set off by black hair, even if some of it grew where it really should be plucked.
"I finished this, so I wanted to read his History of Sexuality," I said.
"You finished it?" She still seem bemused by me, the bitch. "What did you think of it."
"I thought it was interesting," I said, wincing at such a lame opening statement. Hurriedly I added, "I was interested by his concept of repression as being not just an instrument of control over our sexuality, but also, how we define ourselves. Like, if society wasn't there to set the boundaries, we wouldn't be able to, you know..."
"Construct an identity," she said.
"Right," I said.
"Because the one thing we see around us is that some people have very strong constructed identities," she said, peering at me through those black hornrims.
"And it may lead people who have their own constructed identity to make assumptions about others which might be too narrow," I said.
"Where in fact, their identity might be more fluid," she said.
"There could be a lot of fluidity," I said.
"So which one are you looking for?" she asked. "Which book, I mean."
"Oh, uh, volume one of The History of Sexuality," I said. "But it doesn't seem to be in stock."
"I have it," she said.
I looked at her, wondering what she was implying.
"If you'd like to come over for some tea, I could lend it to you," she said.