The First Week
It was dark when I got to Cambridge. I pulled my mother's suitcase over the cobblestones toward the river. Riley had been really mad when we were assigned to Mather, and not to one of the historic ivy-covered brick buildings where young men had lived in ancient times with their servants. But I wasn't into history, so I liked that the rooms in Mather were all singles, and nobody had to figure out how to share an irregularly sized suite where people had lived with their servants.
I hadn't spoken to Ivan since July, when we said goodbye in a parking lot on the Danube. We hadn't exchanged phone numbers, since we were both going to be traveling, and anyway we never had talked much on the phone. But I had never doubted that, when I got back to school, I would find an email from him, explaining everything. It was not, after all, conceivable that there was no explanation, or that the explanation could come from anyone else, or that it could come in any way other than email, since that was how everything had always happened between us.
Mather resembled an alien starship: impregnable, simultaneously ancient and futuristic, gathering its powers. I held my ID card in front of the reader, and the door to the computer room clicked open. I found myself remembering a book I'd read where a woman looked in a mirror for the first time after seven years in a gulag, and the face looking back wasn't her own, but that of her mother. I immediately recognized how shameful, self-important, and obtuse it was for me, an American college student who hadn't checked email for three months, to compare herself to a political prisoner who had spent seven years in a gulag. But it was too late-I had already thought of it.
I mistyped my password twice before I got it right. Information started cascading down the screen, first about the computer itself and the different protocols it was using, then about when and where it had last seen me, and finally the sentence that sent a jolt to my heart: You have new mail.
Ivan's name was there, just like I had known it would be. Before reading the message through, I looked at it all at once, to see how long it was and what it was like. Right away, I could tell something was wrong. So something is wrong, I read. I saw the words shocked and monster: I am very shocked that you see me as such a monster, it said. I know you won't believe anything I say. And: I hope you will tell me why I am so horrible, so that I can defend myself.
I had to reread the whole message twice before I understood that it was three months old. Ivan had sent it in June, in response to an angry email I had sent him before leaving campus. Technically, his reply had been invalidated by all the things that had happened between us in the intervening months. But it still felt like a new and final word from him, because, although there were several other messages in the in-box, none was from Ivan. He hadn't written anything to me at all since that day in the parking lot-since he had held me so close to him, and then gotten in his car and driven away.
Most of the other emails were also months old and out-of-date. There was one from Peter that said, I desperately need to know your flight arrival time in Budapest, and another from Riley asking if it was OK to apply to overflow housing so we wouldn't have to live in Mather. Only two messages were from the past couple of days. One said that I had to see my financial aid officer at the earliest opportunity. The other, from the new president of the Turkish Students Association, said that somebody had found a store in Brookline that sold Kayseri-style pastõrma: a kind of cured meat that some people said was etymologically related to pastrami. So if you like Kayseri-style pastõrma, you can go there, his message concluded.
[AU: Design: please note the diacritic where i would normally be.]
I exited the email program and used the terrible "finger" command, to see where Ivan was. He had logged on from Berkeley two hours earlier. So he was there. He just wasn't writing to me.
Svetlana got to campus the day after me, though it felt like years. I had already slept the night in my new room, eaten breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, and made numerous trips back and forth to the storage facility, having the same conversation over and over. "How was your summer?" "How was your summer?" "How was Hungary?" I was dissatisfied by the vagueness of my own answers. I still hadn't figured out the right angle.
"How was Hungary?" Lakshmi asked at lunch, with a conspiratorial sparkle. "Did anything happen?" Notwithstanding my strong feeling that a lot of things had happened, I answered the question truthfully in the sense that I knew Lakshmi intended it. Nothing had happened.
Svetlana asked me the same question that evening, when we met at her warehouse-like suite in new Quincy, and sat on bean-bag chairs under an Edward Hopper poster, and talked about everything that had happened since the last time we had spoken-when I had been in a phone booth in the K‡l train station, and Svetlana had been at her grandmother's house in Belgrade. I told her how I had finally called Ivan in Budapest, how he had showed up with a canoe, and we had sat up all night at his parents' house.
"Did anything happen?" she asked, in a lazier, more amused voice than Lakshmi's, but meaning the same thing.
"Well, like, that one thing didn't happen," I said.
"Oh, Selin," Svetlana said.
When Ivan first told me about the summer program in Hungary, he said I should take my time to think about it, because he didnÕt want to force me into anything. Svetlana said that, if I agreed to go, Ivan was going to try to have sex with me. This was a possibility I had never previously considered. I daydreamed about Ivan all the time, imagining different conversations we might have, how he might look at me, touch my hair, kiss me. But I never thought about having sex. What I knew about Òhaving sexÓ didnÕt correspond to anything I wanted or had felt.
I had tried, on multiple occasions, to put in a tampon. Tampons were spoken of by older or more sophisticated girls as being somehow more liberated and feminist than maxi pads. "I just put one in and forget about it." I felt troubled by the implication that a person was constantly thinking about their maxi pad. Nonetheless, every few months I would give tampons another shot. It was always the same. No matter what direction I pushed the applicator, however methodically I tried all the different angles, the result was a blinding, electric pain. I read and reread the instructions. Clearly I was doing something wrong, but what? It was worrisome, especially since I was pretty sure that a guy-that Ivan-would be bigger than a tampon. But at that point my brain stopped being able to entertain it, it became unthinkable.
Svetlana said I had better think about it. "You wouldn't want to end up in that situation and not have thought about it," she said, reasonably. And yet, it turned out there wasn't much to think about. It was immediately obvious that if Ivan tried to have sex with me, I would let him. Maybe he would be able to tell me what I had been doing wrong, and it wouldn't be as terrible as trying to put in a tampon.
But he hadn't tried, and all the nights we sat up late together, all we did was talk. Then he left for Thailand, at the end of July, and I still had another ten days in the village, surrounded by people who weren't him. A strange thing: I had gone to Hungary in some way to understand Ivan better, because being Hungarian was such a big deal for him-and it was only in the villages that I had realized, with a certain shock, that, although Hungarianness was a big part of Ivan, Ivan himself was only a very small part of Hungary. On some level, I had always known that Hungary was a whole country, home to millions of people who had never met Ivan, and didn't know or care about him. But apparently I hadn't completely thought it through, because it still felt like a surprise.
Had that been when I lost the thread of the story I was telling myself-the thread of the story about my life?
SvetlanaÕs trip to Belgrade-her first time back since the war-had gone well, maybe thanks to all the preparation she had done with her shrink. There had been only one moment, at the store downstairs from her grandmotherÕs apartment, when she had dropped a coin and bent over to pick it up, and suddenly remembered with horror how a milk bottle had once smashed on those particular floor tiles. She didnÕt remember what else had happened, or what had been so horrible. There was just the image of the glass splintering irretrievably in all directions, the blob of milk spreading over the dingy tiles like a diabolical hand.
"Spilled milk." Svetlana sighed. "Sometimes I wish my subconscious would be a little more original."
I wanted to hear more about it, but Svetlana was already thinking less about Belgrade than about the wilderness, where she had just come back from being a leader on a freshman pre-orientation program. I kept forgetting about the existence of the freshman pre-orientation programs. In addition to the outdoors one, there was an arts one, and a community-service one where you built houses for underprivileged people. You had to pay extra to do them-even the one where you built houses-so it had never occurred to me to apply. But Svetlana had done the outdoors one as a freshman, and had had a profound experience that was related to the sublime.
Listening to Svetlana talk, I fluctuated between believing that something really good had happened to her, and experiencing a profound sense of alienation. She described the intense relationships that she had formed with boring-sounding freshmen through trust exercises, games, and activities that had been devised, over the years, for just this purpose. She didn't seem disturbed, as I would have been, by the idea that it was an experience designed for you, to make you feel a certain way.
An increasingly important role was played in Svetlana's narration by her co-leader, Scott. Each group had two leaders, a guy and a girl. I understood that it must have been exciting to have a shared mission with a guy, requiring coordination and discussions and responsibility. At the same time, there was something sinister about everyone being really into this camping-themed mom-and-dad dress-up. Did I only feel that way because my parents were divorced?
Scott, who was into bluegrass and Zen, sounded like the kind of bland super-American dude who invariably found Svetlana hilarious. For some reason, guys like that always seemed negatively disposed toward me. When she got to the part about how Scott was a senior and had a girlfriend, Svetlana's tone implied that she was either steering away from, or ironically referring to, the comparison, immediately obvious to both of us, to Ivan. She kept emphasizing how specific her relationship to Scott was to the circumstances, because of how completely they had to trust each other, how they had to know each other's bodies, how they had to help each other to climb different natural and man-made obstacles, and to carry the things their bodies needed to survive out there, enveloped day and night in the fathomless beauty of nature.
"How am I ever going to give you up from my life?" Scott had asked Svetlana, on their last night together. Svetlana had told him that maybe it was for the best that their closeness was coming to an end there, since she was never so alive and intense as she was in the woods. "I told him, 'I can be pretty lackluster in the winter,'" she said, leaning characteristically into the unusual word choice, "'and I wouldn't want to disappoint you.'"
"You don't have to talk like that, about disappointing me," Scott had replied. "It's not like we're going out."
Why did I feel crushed? Svetlana was only quoting something Scott had said to her. It had nothing to do with me, and Svetlana herself didn't seem upset.
Svetlana and I were sitting in her room reading the course catalog. It was a magical book. All human knowledge was in it, hidden in the form of its classification. It was like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, where the answer to whether the statue was really by Michelangelo-the answer that would determine the meaningfulness of everything else that had happened-was right there in the filing cabinets, and the children had only to find it, but first they had to guess what it was filed under.
I thought there was something wrong with the way the departments and majors were organized. Why were the different branches of literature categorized by geography and language, while sciences were categorized by the level of abstraction, or by the size of the object of study? Why wasn't literature classified by word count? Why wasn't science classified by country? Why did religion have its own department, instead of going into philosophy or anthropology? What made something a religion and not a philosophy? Why was the history of non-industrial people in anthropology, and not in history? Why were the most important subjects addressed only indirectly? Why was there no department of love?
I knew, even before I asked her, that Svetlana would defend the system of departments-but how? They were so clearly arbitrary categories that some guy had thought of.
"Well, of course they're arbitrary," Svetlana said, "but it's because they're historical categories, not formal categories." She said the course catalog was a relic of how human knowledge had been split into disciplines since Ancient Greece. You couldn't actually separate the knowledge from the history of how it had been conceived and organized, so that was the most meaningful way to study it: divided into historically determined categories. I was impressed by how smart Svetlana was, but I didn't agree. I thought we should be rewriting the categories and trying to think of a better organization than whichever one we happened to have inherited.