My father and I had been driving since morning, eastward across Ohio, miles from home, not speaking. Silence was normal for us. He rarely had anything to say to me, and I often couldn’t find the right words to discuss anything with him. But today I wanted to talk, and I needed him to listen.
I was fifteen years old and heading to college. If that seems ridiculous to you, it was terrifying to me. I had skipped several grades in elementary school and although I was academically prepared for university level work, I was socially backward even among my fifteen-year-old peers.
I blamed my lack of worldliness on my family; I had no role models. From the time I was old enough to go to the bathroom by myself my mother was mostly absent from my life. She’d performed one exceptional solo concert with rave reviews, and afterwards nothing was the same. She was never around to participate in any of my school events and seldom home with the family for holidays. She was off in the Czech Republic now, which was why my father, begrudgingly, had taken charge of this current trek. My mother’s only legacy to me was my hideous name: Hortense—the name of her first cello teacher.
My father didn’t know how to make up for my lack of motherly love. Either that, or he chose not to. He was a fusty man, who wore long-sleeved, white monogrammed shirts even in warm weather, and was too busy trudging up his own career ladder—first as a full professor, then in short succession: dean, provost, and college president—to pay much attention to me, an unseasoned girl. When he wasn’t wrapped up in his academic pursuits—his expertise was in antiquities—he tended to the needs of my two older brothers, both geniuses in their own way, and with whom he could better identify. I’d come along eight years after the younger of the two and I suppose everyone thought I could raise myself by watching my brothers as examples. Which was okay to a point. But I was powerless, a nothing, and without an opinion that counted. I wanted desperately to count.
The music on the radio was soft—a string piece I should have recognized, but didn’t. I looked for an entry to a conversation, but each time I opened my mouth, it appeared my father was too involved in the music to listen. Finally, I reached forward, shut off the radio and said, “When I get to school, I’m going to tell everyone to call me Ginger.”
I’d been thinking about changing my name since first grade, when I understood that it was different from those of other girls in my class. It wasn’t just old-fashioned; it was ugly, like a mean character in a book, a name you’d give to someone you didn’t love. Since then, I’d spent a lot of time thinking up a new one, going through baby name books in the library and I thought I’d found one that fit, given my red hair and freckles.
For a moment, I assumed my father hadn’t heard me. The expression on his face seemed to be one of searching—perhaps for the music that I’d turned off, wondering why he wasn’t hearing it.
His large hands were balanced on the steering wheel and his gray unblinking eyes stared ahead through the windshield as if in a trance. I waited. I anxiously wanted some sign of his approval and understanding.
“Hortense,” he said, “When you are twenty-one, you can go to court and change your name to Fluffy, Puffy, or Spot. But until then, you’ll keep the name Mother and I gave you. Ginger, good God!”
The trees whizzed by—lush sugar maples tinged in lemon and scarlet. In another hour I would be at the college without my family, without my father telling me what I could and couldn’t do. Where did I ever get the idea I needed his permission?
My father looked hurt, but it was hard to tell with him; his eyes were perpetually sad, even when he smiled. For years he had presumed I would stay home and attend Kingsfield College, the small Midwest liberal arts school where he presided and where I would have had free tuition. Instead, I chose a larger and less prestigious state school in the east. It was like a Lexus salesman whose wife insists on driving a Chevrolet—somehow cheapening his life and livelihood. But in a way the choice liberated me. I lived in a family of intellectual and talented giants and, although I did well in school, compared with them I was a midget. My mother had set about to turn me into a vocalist, and so when I was eight, I was sent to a private academy for the musically gifted. But once it became clear I had no voice, I was removed, transferred to the local public school, and tested into a higher grade. All I wanted was for my parents to be proud of me and for this to happen I had to find my own place in the world, as far away from string quartets and Grecian urns as I could get.
We found my dormitory after consulting a map. Because of my father’s duties at his own institution, I had been given permission to arrive early and few students other than the athletes were already on campus.
We moved my suitcases and computer into the dorm room, which was plain, with brown linoleum tiles on the floor, a functional bed, desk, and chair, but a beautiful gothic-style window with lead-edged glass overlooking a garden. I instantly felt at home. My roommate had her own bedroom and we would share the small bathroom between us. The connecting doors were open and I saw that she had already moved in, but was not in her room.
“It’s okay if you leave now,” I said.
My father looked at his watch and said, “In a few minutes. I want to make sure you’re settled in good and proper.” He sat on the straight-backed chair and jiggled his leg up and down while I unpacked a suitcase.
“Really, I’m fine. You can go. It’s a long trip.”
A commotion out in the hallway—keys fumbling, raucous laughing, banging into a door—stopped our conversation, and the next thing that happened was that a girl burst through the adjoining bathroom. It was my roommate; she stood there in front of my father and me almost entirely naked. Behind her was a boy with not much more clothing on him. I couldn’t tell if they were in bathing suits or their underwear.
“You must be Hortense,” she said. She’d pronounced my name in two exaggerated syllables that sounded like whore and tense.
“Yes, but call me Ginger.” I had forgotten that we had received the names of our roommates in the mail several weeks before.
“I’m Greeley Silk. And this is Carter Mason,” she said, referring to the person now entering my room. Carter’s sweaty legs had bulging calf and thigh muscles. “We were out sun bathing on the lawn,” she said, yanking back into place a strap that had slipped down her arm.
All this bare flesh was embarrassing, and I could only imagine that my poor proper father must have wanted to throw my belongings back into the suitcase and get me out of there fast. Kingsfield College still maintained separate men’s and women’s dormitories.
“And you must be Hortense’s father,” she said, smiling and extending her hand, forgetting about my change of name.
My father stood. “Dr. James Lowell,” he said, stiffly.
“Well, nice meeting you,” she said before disappearing into her own room with Carter and locking the door on her side.
I expected a lecture or some indication that the housing arrangement was not suitable, but my father sat back down and asked about my academic schedule, something he and my mother had gone over several times before it was finalized. He seemed less inclined now to rush off.
With the dorm so quiet, it was impossible for sounds of flip-flops dropping to the floor and bedsprings squeaking rhythmically not to penetrate the walls. After a while a throaty voice—I assumed it was Carter’s—moaned, “Oh baby,” over and over. Then it was silent again. I’d never heard my parents having sex, but I’d seen enough movies and read enough books to be pretty sure that’s what was going on. Throughout all this, my father read emails on his cell phone and tapped away replies. When he was done, he rose, patted me on the head and said, “Well, I’ll be running along now. Enjoy your classes.”
After my father left, I continued to unpack. When everything was set up or hung up, there was a knock at the door and Greeley came in. Her hair was wet, and she was in a bathrobe.
“Good looking dad,” she said.
“Are you and Carter going steady?” I asked.
“What era are you from, Hortense? Really! Of course we’re not going steady, whatever that means,” she said. “What gave you that idea? I just met him yesterday.”
“Sorry, I thought… Well never mind. He seems nice.”
“Yes, he is. He’s on the soccer team. I met him at the field. I was trying out as a walk-on for the women’s team, but I got cut the second day. Too weak on defense, according to the coach, although he did say I had great ball skills.” She laughed, flipped her damp hair off her shoulders and said, “I think I’ll let Carter hang around for a while. I like them big, and he is.”
Other than his leg muscles, Carter wasn’t particularly big and certainly not tall. Both my brothers and my father were over six feet, so I knew height.
Once classes began, I didn’t see much of Greeley other than what she left lying around on the bathroom floor. She was taking economics and sociology and I was thinking of majoring in one of the sciences. We’d talked several times during the first weeks, although she rarely said much about herself. She seemed interested in my family, what my parents did, and wanted to see pictures of my brothers. When I showed her a family photograph taken after one of my mother’s performances with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall with us all decked out in formal wear, she looked carefully and said, “You sure you weren’t adopted?”
My introductory biology class was held in one of those huge auditoriums with a balcony. Most of the students were freshmen, but as I left the lecture hall the second week of class I noticed Carter walking down the aisle. He saw me, waved, and came over.
“How come you’re taking a freshman course? Aren’t you a junior?” I asked.
“I have to take a science in order to graduate and I thought, stupidly, that this would be an easy one,” he said. “Well, I’m off to practice and then on the road to a game.”
“Good luck. I hope you win.”
“Thanks. Tell Greeley I’ll see her when I get back. Bye, Ginger!”
That Carter used my preferred name made me fall in love with him right on the spot.
Once the routine of classes settled down and I was well into the rhythm of studying, eating, and sleeping, I realized that all around me girls in my dormitory were involved in non-academic activities: dating, socializing with each other, bar-hopping, and joining sororities and clubs. I was too young or too intimidated to do many of those things, and as the semester deepened, a creeping feeling of isolation and sadness swept over me. The only person I really talked to was Greeley, but she was usually off somewhere, and, when she wasn’t, I got the impression by her amused sarcastic tone that she thought I was some weird alien who had come to college to learn how real girls lived. When Carter was over, unless it was late, I often went to study in the library. The noises coming from the two of them were now magnified ten-fold the level they were when my father was in the room. I was getting an education in things I never expected to learn. But when I was in the dorm, Carter never failed to knock before he left to say, “Hey Ginger! How’s it going?” Those moments kept me from calling my parents and telling them I had made a huge mistake and wanted to return home.
It was after mid-term exams when I finally phoned to say I had done well, that my father told me he had to be at my college the following week for a university administrators’ conference. He would be available to take me and my roommate, if she was willing, out to dinner. It was the first real conversation I’d had with him since he’d dropped me off at school; I’d been emailing both my parents with short messages since the semester began and they wrote back with even shorter ones. But now my father sounded excited to be visiting and I hoped it was because he missed me and wanted to hear about my studies.
I was certain Greeley would laugh in my face when I invited her to dinner, but she said, “Sure. Dorm food is getting on my nerves.”
We would be dining at a French restaurant downtown—a bistro with linen tablecloths and napkins. I dressed up in a jade wool sheath dress with a self-fabric belt, stockings and flats, and pulled my hair back into a ponytail with a velvet ribbon. When I looked in the mirror, what stared back at me was something that resembled a giant string bean. I knocked on Greeley’s door.
“Coming,” she said.
When she opened the door, I was stunned. She wore black leggings and a long diaphanous white shirt covering a black lace bra. Her hair was tousled and she had on lots of eye make-up and crystal earrings that looked like miniature chandeliers.
“We’re meeting my father, Greeley,” I said.
“So?” she said. “He’s not my father. Worry about how you look.”
When we were seated in the restaurant with our menus, Greeley summoned the waiter and asked about one of the entrees, in French.
“Your accent is excellent,” my father said.
“My mother was from Villejuif,” she said. “French was my first language.”
I stared at her. In all the conversations we’d had, she’d never mentioned anything about this. I wondered if she was making up a story to impress my father. Because if that was her aim, she succeeded. From that moment on, he hardly spoke to me at all. During the meal, he asked Greeley about her family, her classes and career plans. She focused completely on him, and when he gave her advice about courses to take the following semester, she smiled coyly and said, “Thank you, sir.” He leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. It was the most relaxed I’d seen him in a long time. I wanted to tell him about my biology class and how excited I was to have finally decided on a major, but I sensed that whatever I said would be acknowledged briefly and then ignored.
I got up to use the ladies’ room. I felt slightly sick. When I returned to the table, my father had paid the check and he and Greeley were getting on their coats. He drove us to the dorm, but when we arrived, Greeley said, “Would you mind dropping me off at Carter’s on the way back to the hotel? I promised I would stop over tonight if it wasn’t too late.”
She opened the rear door and moved into my seat up front.
“See you tomorrow, Hortense,” she said.
I ran up the steps, flung open the door, and immediately removed my stupid dress, wadding it into a ball and tossing it to the bottom of the closet. I never wanted to look at it again. How had the evening—so anticipated, so ripe for family role changing—turned out to be such a disaster? I lay on my bed for what seemed like hours, until I drifted off to an uneasy sleep.
At the end of biology class the next day, Carter stopped me as I was leaving the lecture hall.
“Ginger, I did horribly on the midterm. I just didn’t get some of the concepts. And the last few lectures were harder. Mitosis—piece of cake. But meiosis—forget it! Now I’m worried about not passing. I hear you’re acing everything, so I wonder if you wouldn’t mind coaching me a little.”
“Sure, anytime,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse and I could barely catch my breath.
“We could go to my apartment where no one would bother us. How about Thursday evening after my practice? I can pick you up at the dorm.”
I could barely believe what was happening. I would be alone with Carter—Greeley’s beautiful, sexy Carter. I’d been having dreams about him, dreams I’d pushed away from my waking thoughts. And one of the dreams was exactly what had just occurred—Carter asking me to come to his apartment.
“I think I’m free on Thursday,” I said, guessing that was the grown-up, sophisticated thing to say. My face was hot, though, and I was sure anyone could see how embarrassed I was.
As I returned to my room, I heard Greeley on her cell phone using the syrupy voice she reserved for special people. “I miss you, too… I can’t wait to see you… Sure… Bye.” I wondered to whom she was talking. It couldn’t have been Carter, who would have been at practice. Maybe someone in her family, although I couldn’t imagine saying that to anyone in my family. I sat down at my desk to try to plan how best to teach Carter the ins and outs of sexual reproduction.
After class the next day, I went into town and bought some clothes with the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies. This qualified. The saleswoman helped me pick out some skinny jeans and a soft black sweater that fell off one shoulder. Next door, I shopped for some boots and found a walk-in salon and had my hair cut in a more up-to-date style. I even stopped at a lingerie boutique where I bought some pretty underwear, not like the thongs Greeley wore, which seemed impossibly uncomfortable, but French-cut lace panties and a padded bra. As I was about to leave, I noticed a cosmetics counter and purchased an eyeliner pencil, mascara, and a blusher. No one in my family had ever encouraged me to improve my appearance. My mother was hardly glamorous in her dour velvet recital gowns and severe chignon, but her talent and celebrity outshone her plainness, and in her estimation, that was all that counted. But now that I was on my own and had learned that other things mattered as well, I wanted a change.
The evening I was supposed to tutor Carter, I showered and dressed in my new clothes. Putting on eye makeup felt strange and I had to take it off and redo it several times. The liner looked too thick and I hadn’t bought a sharpener. The blusher was also a little too deep for my fair skin. In the hallway, I turned from side to side before the full-length mirror; overall I liked the effect. I wondered what my father would say if he saw me now. When I returned to my room, Greeley emerged through the bathroom.
“And where do you think you’re going?” she said, leaning one hip on the doorjamb.
“I have a study date.”
“Oh really? Well, you look awful—like a pre-teenage hooker. Get that crap off your face.”
“You’re giving me advice?” I said. “That’s funny.”
“I’m older than you and have more experience,” she said.
I glanced at my watch. Carter would be downstairs any minute. I collected my books and the materials I would need to demonstrate what chromosomes did during the process of forming eggs and sperm.
Greeley didn’t move. She eyed me up and down and said, “In a way, you’re lucky. When a guy wants to be with me, I never know if it’s because of me or because he just wants my body. That would never be the case with you.”
I stopped what I was doing and stared at her posed smugly in the doorway. Hatred swelled up in me and I wanted to hurt her, but I had no idea how without getting into terrible trouble.
I rushed down the stairs and out the door. My eyes stung and I could hardly swallow. But then Carter drove up, put his car in park, and grinned.
“Sorry for the mess… and the smell,” he said when I opened the door. He threw his soccer gear onto the back seat. “I got us some Thai food. Hope that’s all right.”
By the time we arrived at his apartment I was calm and had a plan. We ate the lukewarm Pad See Ew from a plastic container, passing it back and forth between us, using a single fork. Carter opened a can of beer and offered me a soda. After we finished, I spread my notes, textbook, and a package of different colored modeling clay on the table.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you need me to explain?”
“I understand how cells divide, but I still can’t grasp how, or even why, meiosis occurs.”
“The whole point of meiosis is halving the chromosome number for sperm and egg cells—so that when they join during fertilization, you get back to the same number of chromosomes that’s in all your other cells. If there was no meiosis, each time fertilization occurred, the number of chromosomes would double.”
“I get that,” he said. “But what the hell is crossing over?”
I unwrapped the clay and rolled two red and two blue cylinders of different sizes. “The red chromosomes are from your father and the blue ones are from your mother. In meiosis, the DNA in the chromosomes makes copies of itself.” I cut all the clay pieces lengthwise with a plastic knife, but kept the pieces together. “Then the short red one and short blue one line up together as do the long red one and long blue one.” I moved the pieces of clay together. “And then something interesting happens,” I said. “A piece on one side of the little blue chromosome and a piece on one side of the little red chromosome do a do-si-do and exchange places. It takes place before division and is called crossing over.” I pulled off a chunk of each short clay piece and reattached it to the opposite color chromosome. “So now when the chromosomes finally separate during the two divisions of meiosis you get a mixture of genes in each of the sex cells.” I demonstrated this with the clay model.
“Four different cells from the one you started with?” he asked.
“You got it!”
“Things that didn’t go together before now do. I get it…I get it…I get it!”
Carter pulled me off the chair, hugged me tight, and began to jump up and down, lifting me off the ground in great celebratory swoops. My heart thudded and an electric buzz surged from my chest into my face and legs. It felt like liquid fire. I understood now what burning desire meant. I looked into Carter’s eyes and without thinking I pulled his head down and kissed his mouth. I had never kissed a boy before, didn’t know if I was doing it correctly, but I didn’t care.
He pulled himself away and sat down on the bed. “Ginger, I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”
“No. It isn’t,” I said. I could feel tears stinging my nose. I waited until I could gain some control and then said, “I’ve never been with a boy before and I want my first time to be with you.”
“You’re only fifteen. You have lots of time before you should be with a boy that way.”
“I’m almost sixteen. Next month is my birthday. Besides, there are tons of girls my age who’ve already had sex.”
“But they aren’t you.”
“You mean they’re pretty.”
“No, of course not,” he said. “It’s just that you should be concentrating on your work, not sleeping around with boys. You’re going to do big things in your life. I can tell. Don’t mess it up.”
“Please sleep with me,” I begged.
“Is it because of Greeley? Are you in love with her?”
“It’s not about Greeley.”
I could no longer hold back my sobbing. I wondered if all the mean things Greeley had said to me were true. I sat on the bed next to Carter. He pulled me into a lying position and held me like a parent comforting a child. I stopped crying and after a few minutes fell asleep.
Carter tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “It’s getting late. I need to drive you back.”
“I’m so sorry, Carter,” I said. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
He smiled. “I’m not.” He handed me my jacket, picked up his car keys and said, “Let’s go.”
Greeley was in her room with the connecting door open when I got back to the dorm. I dropped my books and gear on my desk, and entered.
“You know, if you’re going to wear eye make-up, you should probably get the waterproof kind,” she said, laughing.
I looked in the mirror and was horrified at the sight of my face—blotchy and smeared with mascara—but I wasn’t going to let that sidetrack me.
“I slept with Carter,” I said.
“Well, yay for you,” she said.
“You’re not upset?”
“I’m not with Carter anymore. Haven’t been for weeks. Not terribly observant, are you, little miss scientist.”
I felt like a balloon with all its air leaking out.
“In fact,” she said, “I’m dating someone else.” She picked up a towel and left the room to shower.
I was about to retreat to my own room when Greeley’s cell phone rang. As it chimed its merry tune, I picked it up from her bed and looked at its lit-up face. The name across the top was Jim. Then I recognized the number; it was my father’s. Why would he be calling Greeley at this time of evening, or at any time? Standing there staring at the phone, it took all my self-control not to grab it, punch the accept button, and say, “Hi Dad.”
Back in my room, I kept turning over what I knew, what I thought I knew, and what I didn’t know, but what made sense. I could come to only one conclusion: my father and Greeley were having an affair. But Greeley never left the campus and my father was four hours away. And yet I knew that was not insurmountable.
I took a deep breath and barged into Greeley’s room. She was wrapped in a towel and drying her hair.
“Are you and my father…” I could barely stomach saying the words, “…seeing each other?”
She turned off the hairdryer and faced me. “Seeing each other?” she said. “Why yes. I am seeing quite a bit of him and he is seeing quite a lot of me.” She laughed at her own joke. “You might even say we’re going steady.”
“You’re disgusting! Don’t you have any shame?” I said.
“Shame? Well aren’t you the little Victorian,” she said.
“My father is married,” I said, “to my mother.”
“Well, good for them.”
“And he’s fifty years old.”
“Let me tell you something. I didn’t go after him. Your father’s been obsessed with me since the day we met. I like that he’s a college president and can’t stop thinking about getting into my panties. It’s exciting and powerful. And about the age difference…older men don’t pop off as early—like your friend Carter.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” I yelled. I ran back into my room, slammed and locked the door between us, and smashed the clay on my desk. Over and over I pictured my father’s face and punched my fist into the amorphous mass until the blues and reds became purple, until my arms became too exhausted to continue.
I wanted to ruin him. He deserved it. I didn’t blame Greeley, entirely. She was what she was and never tried to cover it up. But my father—that smug hypocrite. One phone call would do it. I sat at my computer searching for the members of the Board of Trustees of my father’s college, trying to decide whom to call first. But it was almost midnight, not an acceptable time to phone. Then I remembered—my mother was in Finland where it was daytime and early enough that she would still be in her hotel room. I dialed her mobile number. As it rang, a faint ding alerted me to a new text message. It was from Carter. Hey Ginger. Worried. How RU?
I stabbed the button to end the overseas call. Outside my window wafts of nighttime snow—a harbinger of winter—glanced the lead-edged panes. My first semester away from home was almost over.
I turned off the phone. I didn’t need to say anything to my mother or to anyone. Greeley would eventually tire of the infatuation and move on to someone else. And my father would know that I knew; Greeley was bound to tell him. She wasn’t as smart as she thought she was. I would have power over him, like the Sword of Damocles. Better to keep it than to use it.