On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband's presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House-and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, "almost in opposition to itself."A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek-one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie's tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry-a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.Praise for American Wife"Curtis Sittenfeld is an amazing writer, and American Wife is a brave and moving novel about the intersection of private and public life in America. Ambitious and humble at the same time, Sittenfeld refuses to trivialize or simplify people, whether real or imagined." -Richard Russo"What a remarkable (and brave) thing: a compassionate, illuminating, and beautifully rendered portrait of a fictional Republican first lady with a life and husband very much like our actual Republican first lady's. Curtis Sittenfeld has written a novel as impressive as it is improbable."-Kurt AndersenFrom the Hardcover edition.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
"Curtis Sittenfeld is an amazing writer, and American Wife is a brave and moving novel about the intersection of private and public life in America. Ambitious and humble at the same time, Sittenfeld refuses to trivialize or simplify people, whether real or imagined."
"What a remarkable (and brave) thing: a compassionate, illuminating, and beautifully rendered portrait of a fictional Republican first lady with a life and husband very much like our actual Republican first lady's. Curtis Sittenfeld has written a novel as impressive as it is improbable."
Showing 1-5 of the 5 most recent reviews
1 . Enjoyed it until almost the end...
Posted January 03, 2011 by Jan , Kamloops, BCI really enjoyed this book which is loosely based upon Laura Bush. Very well written, great characters and I could not put this book down until I got to the last one hundred pages or so....then the book seemed to slow down and drag forever. I found it very interesting though reading about the characters and then trying to visualize them as the Bush family. My one cristicism is that the book loses impetus when we get to the White House.
2 . Couldn't put it down!
Posted November 29, 2009 by Jen , Akron OhioExcellent book, very well written. Thought provoking. lt was as if I was on the inside looking out (looking through the main character's eyes) the whole way through. Some very deep (and occasionally sad, only because of the truth they contained) ideas on the give and take of marriage (and relationships), how people balance each other out and so forth. I smiled, I cried. Bravo. A page turner, indeed!
3 . Not good
Posted July 27, 2009 by Janis , Chino Hills, CAPart I was interesting, Part II went bad fast. I put it down, which I rarely ever do.
4 . A must read !
Posted March 26, 2009 by ctredsoxfan , branfordThis is an interesting look at the very gracious former first lady and her life with the president before he became the president Very well written
5 . Recommended!
Posted December 25, 2008 by Jacquie , New York, NYNot as good as Prep, but definitely an enjoyable read. While the book offers an interesting peek at the life of a woman who will one day become the first lady, the best character in the book is without a doubt Charlie Blackwell, a fictionalized version of George W. Bush. The book is a very believable representation of what he might have been like during his younger years.
September 01, 2008
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Excerpt from American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
1272 Amity Lane
Every year, the day after Christmas, my grandmother took the train to visit her old friend Gladys Wycomb in Chicago, and every summer, my grandmother returned to Chicago for the last week in August. In the winter of 1962, when I was a junior, my grandmother announced at dinner one evening in November that this Christmas she wanted me to accompany her--her treat. It would be a kind of cultural tour, the ballet and the museums, the view from a skyscraper. "Alice is sixteen, and she's never been to a big city," my grandmother said.
"I've been to Milwaukee," I protested.
"Precisely," my grandmother replied.
"Emilie, that's a lovely idea," my mother said, while at the same time, my father said, "I'm not sure it'll work this year. It's rather short notice, Mother."
"All we need to do is book another train ticket," my grandmother said. "Even an old bird like myself is capable of that."
"Chicago is cold in December," my father said.
"Colder than here?" My grandmother's expression was dubious. No one said anything.
"Or is there some other reason you're reluctant to have her go?" My grandmother's tone was open and pleasant, but I sensed her trickiness, the way she was bolder than either of my parents.
Another silence sprang up, and at last my father said, "Let me consider this."
In the mornings, my family's routines were staggered: My father usually had left for the bank by the time I came downstairs--I'd find sections of The Riley Citizen spread over the table, my mother at the sink washing dishes--and my grandmother would still be asleep when I took off for school. But that next morning, I hurried downstairs right after my alarm clock rang, still in my nightgown, and said to my father, "I could buy my own train ticket so Granny doesn't have to pay." My allowance was three dollars a week, and in the past few years, I'd saved up over fifty dollars; I kept the money in an account at my father's bank.
My father, who was seated at the table, glanced toward my mother; she was standing by the stove, tending to the bacon. They exchanged a look, and my father said, "I didn't realize you were so keen on seeing Chicago."
"I just thought if the ticket was the reason--"
"We'll talk about it at dinner," my father said.
Every evening, the grace my father recited before we ate was "Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever." Then the rest of us said "Amen." That night, as soon as we'd raised our bowed heads, my father said, "My concern about Alice traveling to Chicago with you, Mother, is the imposition it creates for Gladys, so I've called and made a reservation for you both to stay at a hotel called the Pelham. You'll be my guests for the week."
As if she, too, were hearing this offer for the first time, my mother exclaimed, "Isn't that generous of Daddy!" In a normal voice, she added, "Alice, pass the creamed broccoli to your grandmother."
"My colleague Mr. Erle used to live in Chicago," my father said. "According to him, the Pelham is a very fine place, and it's in a safe neighborhood."
"You're aware that Gladys has an enormous apartment with several spare bedrooms?" It was hard to tell whether my grandmother was irritated or amused.
"Granny, we just don't know Mrs. Wycomb the way you do," my mother said. "We'd feel forward presuming on her."
"Doctor," my grandmother said. "Dr. Wycomb. Not Mrs. And Phillip, you know her well enough to realize she'll still insist on having us over."
"Gladys Wycomb is a doctor?" I said.
Once again, my parents exchanged a look. "I don't see that having dinner with her once or twice would be a problem," my father said.
"What's she a doctor of ?" I asked.
All three of them turned toward me. "Female problems," my mother said, and my father said, "This isn't appropriate conversation for the dinner table."
"She was the eighth woman in the state of Wisconsin to earn her medical degree," my grandmother said. "I don't know about you, but as someone who can hardly read a thermometer, I take my hat off to that."
I had grown up hearing Gladys Wycomb's name--given my grandmother's biannual journeys, Gladys Wycomb was, in my mind, less a person than a destination, faraway yet not entirely unfamiliar--but it was only with the introduction of my own trip to Chicago that I realized how little I knew about her. A few hours later, my mother came to say good night while I was reading an Agatha Christie novel in bed, and I asked, "Why doesn't Dad like Dr. Wycomb?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say he doesn't like her." My mother had been standing over me and had already kissed my forehead, but now she sat on the edge of the bed, setting her hand where my knees were beneath the covers. "Dr. Wycomb has known Daddy since he was a little boy, and she can be a bit bossy. She thinks everyone should share her opinions. I guess you wouldn't remember her visits here because the first was when you were just a baby, and the next one might have been when you were four or five, but there was something that happened on the second visit, a discussion about Negroes--should they have rights, and that sort of thing. Dr. Wycomb was very keen on the subject, as if she wanted us to disagree with her, and we just thought, for heaven's sakes, there aren't any Negroes in Riley." This was literally true, that not one black person lived in our entire town. I'd seen black people--as a child, I'd once been captivated as we drove by a restaurant outside which stood a mother, father, and two little girls my age in pink dresses--but that had been in Milwaukee.
"Do you dislike her?" I asked.
"Oh, no. No. She's a formidable woman, but I don't dislike her, and I don't think Daddy does, either. It's more that we all realized it might be simpler for Granny to go there than for Dr. Wycomb to come here." My mother patted my knee. "But I'm glad they're friends, because I know Dr. Wycomb was a real comfort to your granny after your grandfather died." This had happened when my father was two years old; his own father, a pharmacist, had had a heart attack one afternoon at work and dropped dead at the age of thirty-three. Just the idea of my father as a two-year-old pinched at my heart, but the idea of him as a two-year-old with a dead father was devastating.
My mother stood then and kissed my forehead a second time. "Don't stay up too late," she said.
Though my cultural enrichment had been the justification for our trip, the train had scarcely left the Riley station when it emerged that my grandmother's overriding goal in Chicago was to buy a sable stole from Marshall Field's. She'd seen an advertisement for it in Vogue, she confided, and she'd written a letter to the store asking them to save one in size small.
"If I'd been clever, I'd have ordered it a month ago and worn it to church on Christmas Eve," she said.
"Does Dad know you're buying it?"
"He'll know when he sees me in it, won't he? And I'll look so ravishing that I'm sure he'll be thrilled." We were sitting side by side, and she winked. "I have some savings, Alice, and it's not a crime to treat yourself. Now, let me put some lipstick on you."
I puckered my mouth. When she was finished, she held up my chin and gazed at me. "Beautiful," she said. "You'll be the belle of Chicago." Personally, I did not consider myself beautiful, but in the last few years, I had begun to suspect that I was probably pretty. I stood five feet five, with a narrow waist and enough bosom to fill out a B-cup bra. My eyes were blue and my hair chestnut-brown and shiny; I wore it chin-length and curled toward my cheeks with a wispy fringe of bangs. Being attractive felt, more than anything, like a relief--I imagined life was harder for girls who weren't pretty.
Our train ride was just over two hours, and at Union Station in Chicago, we were met by a woman I did not recognize at first as Dr. Gladys Wycomb; absurdly, I think I'd expected her to have a stethoscope around her neck. After she and my grandmother embraced, my grandmother stood next to Dr. Wycomb and set one arm on her back. "A legend in her own time," my grandmother said, and Dr. Wycomb said, "Hardly. Shall we go have a drink?"
They seemed to me an unlikely pair of friends, at least with regard to appearance: Dr. Wycomb was a bit heavy in a way that suggested strength, and her handshake had almost hurt. She had short gray hair and wore white cat's-eye glasses and a black gabardine coat over a gray tweed suit; her shoes were black patent-leather pumps with low heels and perfunctory bows. My grandmother, meanwhile, always proud of her style and slimness (her tiny wrists and ankles were a particular source of pleasure to her), was especially decked out for our city visit. We'd given ourselves manicures the day before, and she'd gone to Vera's in downtown Riley to have her hair dyed and set. Under a tan cashmere coat, she wore a chocolate-brown wool suit--the collar was velvet, the skirt fell just below her knee--complemented by matching brown crocodile pumps and a brown crocodile handbag. So prized were these accessories that she'd bestowed on them the nickname "my crocs," and the reference was understood by all other family members; in fact, a few weeks earlier, before we'd crossed our snowy street to get to the Janaszewskis' Christmas party, I'd been amused to hear my father say, "Mother, I urge you to wear boots outside and change into your crocs at their house." To meet Dr. Wycomb, I also was dressed up, outfitted in a kilt, green tights, saddle shoes, and a green wool sweater over a blouse; on the collar, I wore a circle pin, even though Dena had recently told me it was a sign of being a virgin.
Outside the train station was a chaos of people and cars, the sidewalks swarming, the traffic in the street jerking and honking, and the buildings around us were the tallest I had ever seen. As we approached a beige Cadillac, I was surprised when a driver in a black cap emerged from it, took our bags, and opened the doors for us; being a lady doctor was, it seemed, a lucrative profession. The three of us sat in the backseat, Dr. Wycomb behind the driver, my grandmother in the middle, me on the right side. "We need to make a stop, if you don't mind," my grandmother said to Dr. Wycomb. "The Pelham at Ohio and Wabash. Phillip got it into his head that Alice and I together would be burdensome to you--you can see that Alice is very unruly and belligerent--so he made us a reservation, which of course we'll cancel."
"Oh, for crying out loud," Dr. Wycomb said. "Does he really see me as such a corrupting influence?"
"We hope that's what you are!" At this, my grandmother turned and kissed Dr. Wycomb on the cheek. I knew that kiss, the lightness of her lips, the scent of Shalimar that floated ahead of her as she approached. When she'd settled against the seat again, my grandmother said, "Don't we?" and patted my hand. Unsure what to say, I laughed.
Dr. Wycomb leaned forward and said, "When your father was a boy, he'd remove all his clothes before making a bowel movement."
"Oh, Gladys, she doesn't want to hear about this."
"But it's instructive. It captures a certain... rigidity, I suppose, that Phillip has always shown. He'd remove his clothes, and when he was seated on the john, he'd shut his eyes tightly and press his hands over his ears. That was the only way he could eliminate."
My grandmother made a face and fanned the air in front of her, as if mere words had brought the stench of a bathroom into the car.
"Am I telling the truth, Emilie?" Dr. Wycomb asked.
"The truth," my grandmother said, "is overrated."
"Your grandmother was my landlady," Dr. Wycomb said to me. "Has she ever mentioned that?"
"It was scarcely as formal as you make it sound," my grandmother said.
"In medical school, I was poor as a church mouse," Dr. Wycomb said. "I lived in a terrible attic belonging to a terrible family--"
"The Lichorobiecs," my grandmother interrupted. "Doesn't that sound like the name of a terrible family? Mrs. Lichorobiec felt she'd been wronged by mankind."
"She refused to let me keep food in the attic because she said it would attract animals," Dr. Wycomb said. "She wouldn't let me keep food in the pantry, either, because she said there wasn't space. This was nonsense, but what could I do? Luckily, your grandmother, who lived next door, took pity and invited me to have my meals at their house."
"I thought you'd starve otherwise," my grandmother said. "I've always been slender, but Gladys was positively skeletal. Just a bag of bones, and big dark circles under her eyes."
"A bag of bones," Dr. Wycomb repeated, and chortled. She leaned forward again, and when our eyes met, she said, "Can you imagine?" In fact, I'd been thinking the same thing, but I smiled in what I hoped was a neutral and unrevealing way. "And then your poor grandfather died," she continued. "What year was that, Emilie? Was that '24?"
"It was '25."
"And your grandmother was ready to move, but I said, 'Let's think this through. If I'm champing at the bit to get away from the Lichorobiecs, and you'd just as soon stay in this house where you're all settled . . .' And so I became your grandmother's tenant, and we had some wonderful times."
"When the Depression hit, you can bet I was thankful to have Gladys," my grandmother said. "Being a widow, I certainly couldn't have gotten by on my salary at Clausnitzer's. Speaking of spending beyond your means"--she pulled the Vogue ad from her purse and unfolded it--"have you ever seen more gorgeous sable?"
Dr. Wycomb laughed. "Alice, your grandmother is the only person in this country who became less frugal following the Depression."
"If it's all about to vanish at any moment, why not have some fun? And tell me that's not stunning. The gloss on it, it's absolutely-- Mmh." My grandmother shook her head appreciatively.
"Are you a clothes horse as well, Alice?" Dr. Wycomb's voice was laced with affection for my grandmother.
"Oh, she's far less shallow than I am," my grandmother said. "Straight A's every semester--imagine my disappointment." In fact, while my parents did not seem to have strong feelings about whether I attended college, my grandmother was the one who'd told me that doing so would give me a leg up.
"Is that right?" Dr. Wycomb said. "All A's?"
"I got an A-minus in home ec," I admitted. The reason why was that on the final project, for which Dena, Nancy Jenzer, and I were partners, we had prepared Hawaiian meatballs in class, and Dena dropped the bowl of Oriental sauce on the floor.
"Are you interested in the sciences?" Dr. Wycomb asked me, but before I could answer, we'd pulled over in front of a maroon awning that said The Pelham on it in white cursive.
"Gladys, you stay here and we'll just be a moment," my grandmother said. "Alice, come in with me."
Although we left our suitcases in the car, it wasn't until we were inside that I fully understood: We weren't, as my grandmother had claimed to Dr. Wycomb, canceling our reservation. We were checking in, then walking back out and riding away in Dr. Wycomb's car. My grandmother did not explain this to me, but when the woman behind the reception desk said, "A view of the lake would cost you just six dollars more a day," my grandmother replied, "We'll be fine in the room we have." She also said we wouldn't need a porter. I was not a person who openly challenged others, and besides, I considered myself an ally of my grandmother. That was why, after we'd retraced our steps through the Pelham's dim lobby and climbed back in the car, I said nothing when she told Dr. Wycomb, "All taken care of, and they didn't give us a bit of trouble." I couldn't understand the reason for our double deception-- lying to my father about where we were staying, lying to Dr. Wycomb about canceling the reservation--but I knew that good manners meant accommodating the person you were with. My grandmother assumed my loyalty, and this, surely, is the reason she got it.
In the train station, when Dr. Wycomb had suggested having a drink, I'd imagined she meant at a restaurant, but instead, we drove to her apartment on Lake Shore Drive, then rode an elevator to the seventh floor; an elevator operator wore a uniform not unlike the driver's and nodded once, saying "Dr. Wycomb" just before pressing the button. With no additional exchange of words, we rose, and when the elevator stopped, we stepped into a hallway lined with gold fabric for wallpaper--not glittery gold but subtly shiny brocade with unshiny fleurs-de-lis appearing at tasteful intervals.
The elevator operator carried our bags inside the apartment. The room where I was to stay featured twin beds separated by a white marble table, and on the table sat a lamp with a large base of raspberry-colored ribbed glass; also, there was an actual suitcase stand on which the operator set my suitcase. At first I'd thought to decline when the man had offered to carry our bags, but when my grandmother had accepted, I had, too. Then I wondered if she ought to tip him, which she didn't. Her room, connected to mine by a bathroom we'd share, had a canopy bed, the canopy itself silvery-blue silk shantung gathered in the center around a mirror the size of a Ritz cracker.
In the living room was a mix of modern and old-fashioned funiture: two low, geometric white couches, an antique-looking gold-leaf chair, a revolving walnut bookcase, and many prints and paintings, some of them abstract, hung close together on the walls. Dr. Wycomb asked a maid in a black dress and a white apron for a Manhattan. My grandmother held up her index and middle fingers: "And two old-fashioneds."
Dr. Wycomb glanced at me through her cat's-eye glasses. "Would you prefer a hot cocoa, Alice?"
"She'll take an old-fashioned," my grandmother said. To the maid, she said, "With brandy, not whiskey."
"Oh, Myra knows." Dr. Wycomb laughed. "Don't forget, I'm from Wisconsin, too, Emilie." When the maid left the room, Dr. Wycomb said, "Myra and I have quite a rivalry going. She's a White Sox fan, while I root for the Cubs. Do you follow baseball, Alice?"
"Not really," I admitted.
"We'll convert you yet. Last season, I'm afraid Myra had more to gloat about, but with Ron Santo, the Cubs just might have a chance this year."
When Myra returned with the drinks, my grandmother held up her glass and said, "Gladys, I'd like to propose a toast. To you, my dear, for being a world-class hostess and a true friend."
Dr. Wycomb raised her own glass. "And I turn it back and say to both of you--to the Lindgren women, Emilie and Alice."
The two of them looked at me expectantly. "To baseball," I said. "To 1963."
"Hear, hear." Dr. Wycomb nodded emphatically.
"To a wonderful time together in Chicago," my grandmother said.
The three of us clinked our glasses.
Dr. Wycomb, it turned out, had taken several days' vacation to be our hostess. Our first order of business was for my grandmother to acquire her sable stole, which, as by then I had intuited would happen, Dr. Wycomb paid for with no discussion. Over the next several days, we bundled up and toured the city together, visiting the Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium (I was appalled and transfixed by a ten-foot alligator), and the Joffrey Ballet, where we took in an afternoon performance of La Fille Mal Gard�e and where Dr. Wycomb, I observed, fell deeply asleep. At the Prudential building, my stomach dropped as we rode the elevator forty floors--when the building had opened in 1955, its elevators had been the world's fastest--and on the forty-first-floor public observation deck, I thought how much my father would have enjoyed the view. Even though I wore a hat, scarf, and mittens, it was unbearably cold in the wind, and I stayed outside under a minute before retreating. My grandmother and Dr. Wycomb did not venture onto the observation deck at all. In the evenings, we ate heavy dinners prepared and served by Myra: braised veal chops with prunes, or lamb and turnips.
That Sunday, Dr. Wycomb went to the hospital to check on her patients, and after she'd left the apartment, my grandmother and I caught a cab to the Pelham. We climbed the steps to the third floor--the building was five stories, with no elevator--and found in our room a double bed and not much else. Breathing heavily from the stairs, my grandmother threw back the coverlet, mussed the sheets, filled a glass with water from the bathroom sink, and set the glass on the windowsill. Then she stood at the window, which looked onto the gray backside of another building. It was seven degrees that day and so overcast I was tempted to lie on the bed and take a nap. "I'm being a little silly, aren't I?" my grandmother said.
I shrugged, still unable to bring myself to ask about our duplicitousness.
"It's not as if your father will ring the management to see if our room looks inhabited," my grandmother said. This was true--due to the expense, my father avoided making long-distance calls. The rare times when he did make them, he shouted uncharacteristically, as if raising the volume of his voice would enable a second cousin in Iowa to hear him better.
"Did Dr. Wycomb ever have a husband?" I asked.
"Gladys is a suffragette. She always says she couldn't have been a doctor if she'd married and had children, and I'm sure she's right. Shall we go warm up with some tea?"
A block away, we found a caf�, mostly empty, where we were seated at a small table. My grandmother scanned the menu. "Have you ever had an �clair?" When I shook my head, she said, "We'll split one. They're bad for your figure but quite delicious."
"Is Dr. Wycomb friends with Negroes?"
"Who told you that?" My grandmother scrutinized me.
It seemed unfair to pinpoint my mother. "I just was wondering, since a lot of them live in Chicago," I said. I had at that time only the slightest awareness of the protests and sit-ins occurring in other parts of the country; my main reminder of race came from Dena, who was not allowed by her father to listen to records by black musicians and therefore liked for me to play Chubby Checker or the Marvelettes when she came over.
"Dr. Wycomb supports desegregation, as do I, as should you," my grandmother said. "That just means they can eat and live and go to school where we do. But if you're talking about socializing, Gladys spends more time with Jews than Negroes. Jews often become doctors, you know." My grandmother still was looking at me closely and apropros of nothing, it seemed, she said, "You don't have a beau, do you?"
"No," I said, but I could feel my face heating. A month before, just after Thanksgiving, Dena and I had spent a Saturday night sledding on Bony Ridge with two senior boys, Larry Nagel and Robert Beike. Robert was the one who'd invited Dena, and Dena had brought me. In the inside pocket of his down coat, Larry had tucked a flask of bourbon that we passed around. More than once I'd sipped my grandmother's old-fashioneds--she'd sometimes give me the maraschino cherry--but this was the first time I'd tasted alcohol away from home. And though I felt a wave of guilt, I knew I couldn't refuse the bourbon without seeming to the boys and Dena like what I was: a goody-goody. So I had drunk from the flask each of the four times it came to me, and though it didn't taste good, it made me warm and relaxed. Prior to meeting up with Larry and Robert, I'd been jittery, but I began to feel calm and amused. At one point, at the bottom of the hill, Dena and I scurried to a grove of trees, pulled down our snow pants, and urinated into the snow, giggly and unself-conscious. "Write your name in yellow," Larry called to us. At the end of the night, the boys walked us back to our houses, and from across the street, I could see Dena and Robert on her porch, kissing deeply. For several minutes, Larry stood a few feet away from me--at one point, under his breath, he said, "If they don't watch out, their tongues will freeze"--but after Robert and Dena pulled apart and Robert called in a shouting whisper, "We've gotta go, Nagel," Larry zoomed toward me without warning, his mouth on mine, his lips cold but his tongue warm. The entire kiss lasted about eight seconds and involved much head and neck movement, as if Larry were participating in a pie-eating contest, but instead of a pie, there was my face. Then he was off our stoop, headed up Amity Lane with Robert, and as soon as they were sufficiently far away, Dena and I met in the middle of the street, clutching each other, trying not to scream. "You two were making out," she hissed. Until Larry had kissed me, I had not necessarily thought I wanted him to, but after he had, I was glad. In the four weeks since then, Robert and Dena had gone on actual dates, but Larry and I had only passed in the halls at school, acknowledging each other vaguely.
In the caf�, my grandmother said, "You should have a beau. When I last went to see Dr. Ziemniak, he showed me a picture of Roy, who seems to be growing into a handsome fellow." Dr. Ziemniak was our dentist.
"Roy Ziemniak is short," I said.
"Aren't we picky? Eugene Schwab, then." The Schwabs lived two doors down from us.
"Eugene goes out with Rita Sanocki."
"Not Irma and Morris's daughter?"
"I've always thought she has a piggy face."
"You called Roy Ziemniak short, my dear. And I don't mean to be cruel about Rita, but you must know what I'm referring to. It's her eyes and nose." The waitress arrived then to take our order, and when she was gone, my grandmother said, "I'd had two marriage proposals by the time I was your age. It's time for you to start dating."
"We've found a gentleman for you," Dr. Wycomb announced the next evening at dinner. We were having rack of lamb, buttered rolls, and artichokes--another food I'd never tasted, and one Dr. Wycomb apparently ordered once a year in a crate from California. My grandmother had shown me how to remove the leaves and dip them in butter, how to daintily skim off the meat with my front teeth. "Marvin Benheimer is the son of a colleague of mine, a gastroenterologist," Dr. Wycomb was saying to me. "He's in his second year at Yale University, and he's very tall. He'll pick you up tomorrow at seven."
"What fun," my grandmother said.
"He'll pick me up here? Tomorrow?"
"It's New Year's Eve," my grandmother said. "We thought it would be a treat for you after spending all week with two old ladies."
"I like spending time with the two of you."
"You don't have to marry him, Alice," my grandmother said. "Just consider it practice. It's important to know how to behave in a range of social situations."
I couldn't tell my grandmother that she was underestimating me-- I may not have been on any actual dates, but Larry Nagel was not even the first person I'd kissed. At Pauline Geisseler's fourteenth birthday party in ninth grade, when we'd played post office, Bobby Sobczak had picked me, and then it became my turn and I picked Rudy Kuesto. Both of them had tasted like peanuts because that was one of Pauline's party snacks.
"You shouldn't worry," Dr. Wycomb said. "Marvin is an upstanding young man. He'll take you to dinner, then bring you to the Palmer House, where your grandmother and I will be having a drink with his parents, and we'll all ring in the New Year together. That doesn't sound so dreadful, does it?"
Before I could respond, my grandmother set down her fork and beamed. "That sounds perfect," she said.
He had on a coat and tie, and I wore the kilt and blouse I'd worn on the train from Riley, but not the circle pin or the green wool sweater. "It's manly," my grandmother had said about the sweater when I appeared in the living room to show her and Dr. Wycomb the outfit, and though I protested that I'd be cold, she said it would be a short walk to the restaurant. Marvin visited with my grandmother and Dr. Wycomb before we left; when Myra asked what he'd like to drink, he said, "I'll take a Miller, if you've got it," then added, in the same tone of unjustified enthusiasm that the announcer used in the ads, "The champagne of bottled beers!" In this moment, I could feel my grandmother not making eye contact with me, refusing to concede what I'd been nearly certain of right away--that Marvin possessed little appeal.
When we stood to leave, Dr. Wycomb said, "Here's a key, just in case, and I've written down my address and telephone number, should there be any sort of emergency." She handed me a small square of paper.
"Gladys, they'll be three blocks away," my grandmother said. "And Marvin has no prison record, at least none that he's mentioned."
"Dr. Wycomb knows I'm as squeaky clean as they come," Marvin said, and everyone chuckled. But I had an unsettled feeling in my stomach; it had come over me while I brushed my hair in the bathroom, and it hadn't gone away when I'd met Marvin, even after I'd realized there was no reason to be intimidated by him. As she helped me put on my coat, my grandmother whispered, "So he's a bit of a horse's ass, but remember: practice." In the elevator down to the lobby, I couldn't help asking, "How tall are you?" and Marvin said, "Six-five," in a way that implied both that he was asked often and that he never grew tired of answering.
The restaurant was called Buddy's, which had made me imagine it would not be fancy, that we might even be overdressed. But it was fancy, and we were some of the youngest people there. Someone took our coats on our arrival, and the ma�tre d' led us to the dining room, which was dimly lit, with heavy curtains and large wingback chairs at the tables.
After we'd sat, Marvin said, "To be honest, when my father told me I had to do this, I thought you'd be a dog, but you're pretty darn cute."
Uncertainly, I said, "Thanks."
"Don't be insulted--I wouldn't be telling you if you were a dog."
"Oh," I said. "Okay."
"You're still in high school, aren't you?" When I nodded, he said, "Well, I advise you to stay away from Bryn Mawr. Of all the Seven Sisters, the girls there are the biggest ding-a-lings."
"Who are the seven sisters?"
He looked at me as if trying to decide whether I was joking or serious. Then, not unkindly, he said, "You really are from a small town. They're the female counterparts of the Ivies. Radcliffe goes with Harvard, Barnard goes with Columbia, and so on. In New Haven, our sister school is Vassar, though they're a solid hour and a half away."
"I want to go to Ersine Teachers College in Milwaukee," I said. "It's all girls, so maybe it's a sister school--I don't know."
"It's not a Seven Sisters school."
"Yeah, I don't think it is. I don't know, though."
"No," he said. "It's definitely not."
That unsettled feeling from before--it still hadn't gone away. It was now accompanied by a heat that was spreading through my body, collecting in my cheeks and neck.
"If I order for both of us, I'm sure they'll bring you a drink," he said.
"Water is fine." I touched my fingertips to my face and, as I'd expected, my skin was burning. "Excuse me for a second." The bathroom was also fancy: An attendant, a black girl who looked not much older than I, was sitting by the sink, and every stall had a wooden door that went all the way up to the ceiling; inside the stall, the fixture holding the toilet paper was gold. As my mother had taught me, I placed a strip of paper on either side of the seat before I sat down, and when I was finished urinating, I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees, covering my face with my hands. It was not that I definitely would throw up, but the possibility existed. Was I really such a social coward? Though I didn't think I cared what Marvin thought of me, perhaps my body knew more than my mind.
Conscious of the attendant out by the sink, I forced myself to stand, flush, and fix my clothes. I washed my hands, and when the woman passed me a towel, I said--I'd seen the dish of coins--"I'm sorry, but I left my purse at the table."
When I returned to the dining room, Marvin said, "I took the liberty of ordering an hors d'oeuvre. How do you feel about escargot?"
"That's fine." I had, of course, never tasted them, though I knew what they were, and they sounded awful. When the waiter brought the small white bowl filled with brown globs in a pool of melted butter, I had to look away. For a main course, Marvin asked for fricassee of rabbit--smirking, he added, "With apologies to Mr. Bugs Bunny"-- and I asked for steak; it seemed like something that wouldn't hold surprises, it would be straightforward, and I could take three bites, then push the rest around my plate.
Marvin leaned intently across the table. "Here's a moral dilemma for you. You've built a bomb shelter in your backyard, and your neighbors haven't. When the Soviets attack, you hightail it to your shelter, but your neighbors come around begging for food and water. What do you do?"
"What?" I said.
"Alice, do you follow current affairs? And I don't mean what hat Jackie Kennedy is wearing this week and who designed her dress."
"Sometimes I read the newspaper." One of my organs had just done a somersault inside my stomach, which was distracting enough that Marvin's condescension didn't really offend me.
"You shoot 'em dead," he said. "That's what you do. If your neighbors didn't plan ahead, their survival isn't your responsibility."
This was when the waiter arrived with our entr�es, and my steak was a lump of brown meat still attached to the bone, accompanied by menacingly glistening peas and carrots, and a baked potato bulging at the seams. I knew I couldn't eat any of it; I couldn't touch it.
"The thing no one realizes about Khrushchev--" Marvin began, and I said, "I'm sorry, but I don't feel very well. I need to leave."
"Now?" Marvin looked bewildered.
"I'm sorry." I stood. "Please stay. I'll be fine getting back to Dr. Wycomb's."
"Are you sure?"
"Both our meals shouldn't go to waste. I'm so sorry." I hurried through the restaurant and retrieved my coat from the coat-check man, who spoke as he passed it to me, but I walked outside without replying. I was dizzy and scalding hot, focused only on not letting the horrible churning inside me erupt into something public and visible. If I could just get back to Dr. Wycomb's empty apartment, I could sit on the bathroom floor next to the toilet, and it would all emerge in an orderly fashion; this moment would pass with no one watching.
Walk forward over the sidewalk, I thought, and as I repeated the phrase in my head, it seemed, in my unsteadiness and desperation, to be a palindrome I was inside of, a purgatory of nausea. It was brutally cold outside, which at first was an improvement over the restaurant but quickly became its own misery. Then, miraculously, I'd reached Dr. Wycomb's building. The doorman nodded as I went in, and the elevator attendant also seemed to recognize me. "Happy New Year," he said, and I did not respond, again aware of the rudeness of my silence yet afraid to open my mouth.
The gold silk wallpaper then, the hallway, the door to Dr. Wycomb's apartment, my hands shaking as I turned the key she'd given me. There was music playing when I entered the apartment--it was jazz and it was loud--and this was why, in spite of my nausea, I did not immediately step from the foyer into the hall leading to the bedrooms. Having believed the apartment would be vacant on my return, I was surprised and curious (could Myra be playing this noisy music? But no, she'd gone home late that afternoon), so I stepped instead into the living room, and just before I crossed the threshold, I heard my grandmother's laughter, and just after I heard her laughter, I saw her sitting on Dr. Wycomb's lap, kissing Dr. Wycomb on the lips.
Dr. Wycomb was dressed in a burgundy silk bathrobe; my grandmother was wearing a beige bra and a beige half-slip trimmed with lace. She was facing Dr. Wycomb, and their mouths were open a little and their eyes were closed, and the kiss went on for several seconds and had not yet stopped when I backed out, so stunned that briefly, my shock outweighed my queasiness. I had to leave the apartment; there was no alternative. And so I did, handling the door as carefully and quietly as possible. In the hall, my nausea came roaring back, and by the time I knew what I was doing, I'd already done it. On either side of the elevator were large metallic vases, almost three feet high, with red bows tied around them and Christmas greens emerging artfully from their centers. Approaching the nearer vase, I pushed aside the greens and then I vomited--hideously, pungently, gloriously--into the vase's depths.