K. has been invited. But only barely.
No more! Can’t endure it.
Excuses herself from the convivial gathering, enters her hosts’ house blundering and blinded in the shadowy interior after the dazzling outdoors above the lake.
Invisible she is not likely to be noticed.
Near-inaudible when she (rarely, hesitantly) speaks she is not likely to be missed amid the bright chatter like flashing scimitars.
In search of a bathroom, most plausibly. A wounded heart requires privacy.
Of course: she might have simply asked the Professor’s wife where the bathroom is but too shy, sulky-shy, damned if she will interrupt a conversation, draw attention to herself.
Also: could not possibly have asked Professor M. with whom she has not exchanged a single word beyond Hello! since arriving at the gathering a little more than an hour ago.
Just—not—possible—to utter the vulgar word “bathroom” to Professor M., to whom words are so important . . .
And so, inside the unfamiliar house. Stumbling, like one with a prosthetic leg.
Blinking in the shadowy interior, like a nocturnal creature.
A single large room with a peaked ceiling, well-worn sofas and crammed bookcases and a fireplace opening onto a dining-kitchen area, long butcher-block table cluttered with pans, kitchenware, printed material—magazines, books. She stares, she is dismayed, evidence here of the eminent philosopher’s domestic life, jarring intimacy in the very casualness with which books are mixed with household items. On the rough-hewn plank floor beside the fireplace a wavering six-foot row of back issues of American Philosophical Journal. Nearby, a single very soiled girl’s sneaker.
Sharp smell of raw onions, cloying-sweet smell of wine.
Steeling herself for a twinge of nausea.
How he has disappointed her! He will never know.
Beyond the kitchen area there’s a door, surely the bathroom she thinks as her hand reaches out, turns the doorknob but opens the door startled and abashed to discover, not a bathroom, not even a room, just a kitchen closet—canned foods, cereal boxes, jellies and jams, Tabasco sauce . . . Quickly she shuts the door. What am I doing!
Blunders along a hallway. The T-shaped log house above the jewel-like lake is built into a hill at its rear, pine boughs casting a filigree of shadow against the window at the end of the hall.
He’d referred to it as a cottage. Far larger than any cottage she has ever seen.
Resenting this. Resenting him. Inviting her out to the lake to insult her in front of the derisive others.
Should have discovered a bathroom by now, obviously she has missed it. Boldly passing an opened door, glances inside to see a screened-in porch, must be at the (older, more run-down) rear of the house and not visible from the terrace above the lake and so she steps inside squinting—but seeing then, to her embarrassment, that there’s a person on the porch, seated in a wicker swing with chintz cushions, reading.
“Hi!”—K. is quick to preempt the situation since the girl, presumably a daughter of the household, has seen her.
The girl regards her coolly. Vexation like a shimmering reflection on water, in her small pale face.
A face in which, if you look closely, there is something wrong: a subtle asymmetry. The left eye rigid in focus, the right eye more alert, alive. Unusually dark eyebrows nearly meeting across the bridge of her nose, thin resolute lips.
A girl as like K. herself at the age of twelve or thirteen as a mirror image.
Come help us celebrate the end of the term. RSVP appreciated. Thank you!
How does K. know that she was invited to the gathering at Professor M.’s house on Lake Orion only barely?
Well—she doesn’t know. Not with absolute certainty.
However, she has reason to (strongly) suspect that others in the seminar, Professor M.’s favorites, were invited several days before she was invited, a deduction based upon evidence inexplicable otherwise, overheard remarks in the seminar room and in the hallway outside the room, murmured replies, cautioning smiles (for she was near, though staring intently at her cell phone, still they seemed cautious of her, or wary of her: the two motives were often mixed in her experience, indistinguishable; though among her relatives another motive, a wish to protect, might be involved); a fact that, assuming what she’d deduced was true, at least several others received invitations the previous week, perhaps not everyone in the seminar (fifteen) but certainly several, thus it follows that she can know that her invitation was belated: arriving in her inbox at 10:28 a.m. Tuesday morning.
Of course, only the arrival of the invitation allowed her to know, in retrospect, what those (certain) others, Professor M.’s favorites, were talking about the previous Friday.
At the time she hadn’t a clue. Nor even a suspicion.
And there is no disputing this: the invitation to the end-of-term party was an email invitation, presumably the others’ invitations were email also, so, her brain spins tirelessly, the delay of a day, or two, or three could not be attributed to the U.S. Postal Service, obviously her invitation had been sent in a different/later mailing, impersonal, that’s to say not personal. Though addressed to her.
To clarify: addressed to S. L. Karrell.
Not by Professor M., she is certain. By his assistant. Issuing the invitation in Professor M.’s name.
Shameful: instead of declining the invitation, the insult of the invitation, for certainly the invitation came days after the first invitations were sent out, she, S. L. Karrell, eagerly accepted; worse yet, in an appropriated voice, a voice not her own, blithely cheerful, giving not a hint of the hurt she felt most justifiably, and most righteously, typing the breathless reply
Thank you very much. I will be there!
But thinking it over, calibrating the punctuation, deciding to amend to a less manic
Thank you very much. I will hope to attend.
And again thinking it over, considering the slovenly illogic of the future tense, deciding to amend to a more precise
Thank you very much. I hope to attend.
For always, K. gives in.
For rarely, K. will hold out.
As Professor M.’s (clearly precocious) daughter does not give in just because a stranger is smiling inanely at her. As instinctively perhaps, the daughter resists the urge of firing neurons in her brain triggered by the other’s smile, to smile.
She has thought she’d mastered such resistance(s). The (ill-advised) journey to Lake Orion has unsettled her defenses.
Seven miles from the university. Meaning that those without vehicles (like K.) will have to beg rides with someone with a vehicle.
A forced mingling. Conviviality. With K.’s rivals. With those who, if they could, would tear out her throat with their teeth.
Where of necessity K. is out of place.
Where she (alone) is out of place.
It is always thus. Once out of place, one can never be in place.
For once out, the concatenation is broken.
A corollary: those in have no idea that they are in. For they have no idea of out.
Only those out have an idea. For out sharpens the brain like a razor-sharp scimitar while in is a browsing meek-necked creature in a herd in a pen oblivious.
Oh! That’s it.
Seeing, on the girl’s left leg, not visible from the doorway, an aluminum brace.
Noting that the left leg is considerably thinner than the right leg, which appears to be normal, though slender.
And how the asymmetry of the girl’s face is mirrored in the thin slight body, so careful in its movements; reserving its strength (K. sees now) as the face reserves its expressions.
Feeling an immediate kinship with the girl. Like me. Like me. No brace on K.’s leg but an (invisible) brace enveloping her body.
She has been trapped inside the brace, she has grown stunted inside the brace.
Not sympathy for Professor M.’s daughter, sympathy for herself.
“If you tell me your name, I’ll tell you mine.”
In her soul, K. is no more than twelve, thirteen. All the rest is subterfuge.
Startled, the girl laughs. Her eyes are veiled, reluctant. But seeing that K. is waiting expectantly she says, with a shrug: “Hertha.”
“Hertha! That’s a beautiful name.”
Vehemently the girl shakes her head.
“It is not. I hate it.”
“But it’s unusual—‘Hertha.’ I’ve never met a ‘Hertha’ before.”
“Of course you haven’t! No one has.”
“Are you named for someone in your family?”
“Yes. A great-grandmother on my mother’s side. Or great-great-grandmother. The claim is Tuscarora blood.”
Smiling, seeing that she has made her visitor smile. Relenting a little, not so annoyed now at the intrusion, but wanting K. to understand that she is not impressed with her own ancestry, or with the pretensions of her mother, only just embarrassed.
“So, what is your name?”
Out of nowhere, a feather blown on the wind, inspired by the Native American reference—“Kestrel.”
“Kestrel.” The girl repeats the name, doubtfully. “Isn’t that some kind of bird?—hawk?”
Meaning to be exact, even pedantic, K. explains that kestrel is just some syllables, in English, meant to identify a certain species of predator bird; but Kestrel is also a surname, her father’s family name.
The girl’s lips twitch in a smile. She suspects that she is being teased.
“But what is your first name?”
“Oh, that’s silly. You are—Kestrel Kestrel?”
“No, just Kestrel, Hertha. There is just one of me.”
They laugh together. Gaiety leaps between them like an electric current.
By which time K. has stepped onto the screened-in porch. Uninvited but not not invited, either.
Game theory is a paradigm of life, unless life is a paradigm of game theory.
In game theory, a zero-sum game is one in which there is a winner and there is a loser and the spoils go to the winner and nothing to the loser.
And the sum of the benefit/wealth gained by the transaction is zero.
Rawest of economics, Darwinian natural selection. The weak fall by the wayside, the strong roll their carts over the bones of the dead. Take no prisoners, no negotiations. A Hobbesian universe, tyranny of might makes right.
Vulgar American soul: Winner take all!
Of course, there is the possibility of the non-zero-sum game.
In theory, all knowledge posits a non-zero-sum situation. For one person to acquire knowledge does not subtract from another’s acquisition of knowledge. For one person to acquire an appreciation of “culture” does not subtract from another’s acquisition.
K. has never been sure what “love” is though she has been hearing the word, the soothing/seductive syllable, for as long as she can remember. In its purest form—(if there is indeed a purity of something so lacking form)—love is the quintessence of the non-zero-sum game. For two can love equally, it is claimed, and their love is then doubled, not halved; neither player “wins” and neither player is doomed to “lose” and nothing is lost. In theory.
In reality, however, “love” has seemed to K. the very quintessence of the zero-sum game.
Copyright © 2023 by Joyce Carol Oates. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.