Like I didn’t belong there, and should have been at home, asleep in my bed, like everyone else I’d see at school in a few hours. But just as quickly, it would pass, everything settling back into place around me. And when Julie came back around with her coffeepot, I’d push my cup to the edge of the table, saying without words what we both knew well—that I’d be staying for a while.
My stepsister, Thisbe Caroline West, was born the day before my graduation, weighing in at six pounds, fifteen ounces. My father called the next morning, exhausted.
“I’m so sorry, Auden,” he said, “I hate to miss your speech.” “It’s all right,” I told him as my mother came into the kitchen, in her robe, and headed for the coffeemaker. “How’s Heidi?”
“Good,” he replied. “Tired. It was a long haul, and she ended up having a Caesarean, which she wasn’t so happy about. But I’m sure she’ll feel better after she gets some rest.”
“Tell her I said congratulations,” I told him. “I will. And you go out there and give ’em hell, kid.” This was typical: for my dad, who was famously combative, anything relating to academia was a battle. “I’ll be thinking about you.”
I smiled, thanked him, then hung up the phone as my mother poured milk into her coffee. She stirred her cup, the spoon clanking softly, for a moment before saying, “Let me guess. He’s not coming.”
“Heidi had the baby,” I said. “They named her Thisbe.” My mother snorted. “Oh, good Lord,” she said. “All the names from Shakespeare to choose from, and your father picks that one? The poor girl. She’ll be having to explain herself her entire life.”
My mom didn’t really have room to talk, considering she’d let my dad name me and my brother: Detram Hollis was a professor my dad greatly admired, while W. H. Auden was his favorite poet. I’d spent some time as a kid wishing my name was Ashley or Katherine, if only because it would have made life simpler, but my mom liked to tell me that my name was actually a kind of litmus test. Auden wasn’t like Frost, she’d say, or Whitman. He was a bit more obscure, and if someone knew of him, then I could be at least somewhat sure they were worth my time and energy, capable of being my intellectual equal. I figured this might be even more true for Thisbe, but instead of saying so I just sat down with my speech notes, flipping through them again. After a moment, she pulled out a chair, joining me.
“So Heidi survived the childbirth, I assume?” she asked, taking a sip off her coffee.
“She had to have a Caesarean.” “She’s lucky,” my mom said. “Hollis was eleven pounds, and the epidural didn’t take. He almost killed me.”
I flipped through another couple of cards, waiting for one of the stories that inevitably followed this one. There was how Hollis was a ravenous child, sucking my mother’s milk supply dry. The craziness that was his colic, how he had to be walked constantly, and even then screamed for hours on end. Or there was the one about my dad, and how he…
“I just hope she’s not expecting your father to be of much help,” she said, reaching over for a couple of my cards and scanning them, her eyes narrowed. “I