town, and it was like my dad had a whole new life. And even though they were always inviting me to come, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out if there was still a place for me in it.
Now, from the other room, I heard a sudden burst of laughter, followed by some clinking of glasses. My mother was hosting another of her graduate student get- togethers, which always began as formal dinners (“Culture is so lacking in this culture!” she said) before inevitably deteriorating into loud, drunken debates about literature and theory. I glanced at the clock—ten-thirty—then eased my bedroom door open with my toe, glancing down the long hallway to the kitchen. Sure enough, I could see my mom sitting at the head of our big butcher-block kitchen table, a glass of red wine in one hand. Gathered around her, as usual, were a bunch of male graduate students, looking on adoringly as she went on about, from the little bit I could gather, Marlowe and the culture of women.
This was yet another of the many fascinating contradictions about my mom. She was an expert on women in literature but didn’t much like them in practice. Partly, it was because so many of them were jealous: of her intelligence (practically Mensa level), her scholarship (four books, countless articles, one endowed chair), or her looks (tall and curvy with very long jet-black hair she usually wore loose and wild, the only out-of-control thing about her). For these reasons, and others, female students seldom came to these gatherings, and if they did, they rarely returned.
“Dr. West,” one of the students—typically scruffy, in a cheap-looking blazer, shaggy hair, and hip-nerdy black eyeglasses—said now, “you should really consider developing that idea into an article. It’s fascinating.”
I watched my mother take a sip of her wine, pushing her hair back smoothly with one hand. “Oh, God no,” she said, in her deep, raspy voice (she sounded like a smoker, although she’d never taken a drag in her life). “I barely even have time to write my book right now, and that at least I’m getting paid for. If you can call it payment.”
More complimentary laughter. My mother loved to complain about how little she got paid for her books—all academic, published by university presses—while what she termed “inane housewife stories” pulled in big bucks. In my mother’s world, everyone would tote the collected works of Shakespeare to the beach, with maybe a couple of epic poems thrown in on the side.
“Still,” Nerdy Eyeglasses said, pushing on, “it’s a brilliant idea. I could, um, coauthor it with you, if you like.”
My mother lifted her head and her glass, narrowing her eyes at him as a silence fell. “Oh, my,” she said, “how very sweet of you. But I don’t do coauthorship, for the same reason I don’t do office mates or relationships. I’m just too selfish.”
I could see Nerdy Eyeglasses gulp, even from my long vantage point, his face flushing as he reached for the wine bottle, trying to cover. Idiot, I thought, nudging the door back shut. As if it was that easy to align yourself with my mom, form some quick and tight bond that would last. I would know.
Ten minutes later, I was slipping out the side door, my shoes tucked under my arm, and getting into my car. I drove down the mostly empty streets, past quiet neighborhoods and dark storefronts, until the lights of Ray’s Diner appeared in the distance. Small, with entirely too much neon and tables that were always a bit sticky, Ray’s was the only place in town open twenty-four hours, 365 days a year. Since I hadn’t been sleeping, I’d spent more nights than not in a booth there,