From Autonomy, a novel

 

1966

An ungainly girl named Joy Zolaroff had come to work for a semester in Helen’s school as a teaching assistant, and just as they had begun to get to know each other, she disappeared. It was rumored that she had gotten herself pregnant out of wedlock. Then, over a year later, at a cafe poetry reading Helen had only attended because she was meeting a date for espresso, she was stunned to see a transformed Joy on stage, everything about her wild and ripe and changed: unbound black curls, skin tanned although they were deep into winter, her dirty jeans and zippered vest sexily hugging her powerful shape, as if she had thundered onto the block on a crusty old motorcycle.

The poem was obscure at first, but at a certain moment Helen got what it was about. Giving up a newborn for adoption. A pink, visceral part had been ripped from her, stolen, even if with her permission. She seemed to grieve this loss more deeply than Helen had appreciated its opposite, but Helen was too absorbed to wonder at the paradox. Who spoke truthfully about such things? Though was anyone in the audience listening? The spitting of the espresso machine and a babble of conversations punctually drowned out the tumbling confession whose momentum was crucial to Joy’s effect.

She seemed unaware of Helen’s presence. She spoke despondent, raw lines in a voice that managed to sound offhand and intimate and then, as if to underscore this quality of fearless self- revelation, she began taking off her clothes, not stripping in a theatrical sense, but haphazardly, letting everything drop underfoot the way one did when drunk and falling into bed. She had one of the most beautiful female bodies Helen had ever seen, swerving, plumed with blue-black pubic hair, both tensely coiled and dusky-soft, and the image of her kicking off one pants leg while declaiming her lines from a typewritten page stayed on Helen’s mind for some time. She stepped forward to speak through a sudden press of admirers, and would have stayed longer than the minute it took to remind Joy of her name and scribble it with her phone number on a napkin, but for her Sorensonian date, pressuring her not to make them late for the film he had chosen.

“I want to be like Joy,” Helen confessed to Mario. She was frustrated with her own life structure. She wanted to look like Joy, for the power and self-satisfaction, but, mainly, to be as free. “She’s like this loose cannon. Like, pay attention or else!”

“So that impressed you? Her shock tactics?”

“I liked the effect of those tactics,” said Helen, a little defensive for Joy.

Mario’s mustache, an attention-grabber if ever there was one, obscured his expression. “What do you imagine Joy’s life is like? When she’s got her clothes on?”

“I don’t know. She’s completely unique. Lives in the moment. Does her own thing. I have this image of peacock plumes in a vase, poems scattered all over a table.”

“And how does she support herself?”

“I’d love to find out. I gave her my phone number and I keep thinking that maybe she’ll call. But I’m also afraid to let her get to know me.”

Mario made his beckoning gesture.

“Well, what would she see in me?”

“How do you know that she wouldn’t admire your accomplishments? She studied to become a teacher and was thrown off course. She might have regrets. You became a teacher. She couldn’t manage to care for a newborn. Another loss. Maybe she would love to have a bit of your good luck and competence.”

Helen considered this, nibbling a cuticle.

“So?”

“I’m thinking that over,” she said.

 

Mario was not susceptible to the appeal of a person like Joy. He saw anyone whose talent emerged in obscurity—jets of genius flaming underground—as more or less a crackpot. He claimed to love the arts, and advised his patients to dabble in Saturday pottery and modern dance classes as a stimulus to creativity, but resisted the “hunger artist schtick” as a solipsistic cop-out.

Helen was drawn to all sorts of creative types. If she had been born an heiress and hadn’t gone into therapy she might have lived the life of lusty Peggy Guggenheim, digging beauty in all of its guises through defiantly weird flambeau glasses. Almost from the first she had regretted letting Mario talk her into a teaching career, and instead of getting the hang of it, as he had promised, she feared it was grinding her down.

She taught third grade on a devastated corner of East Harlem. Some of the kids had been left back in her class without knowing how to read or do simple addition. Others could barely speak English. Despite her best efforts, her classroom often collapsed into bedlam. At such moments, all she could do was remain stationed at the lonely bulwark of her desk, impotent and furious. What if the principal walked in? Even so, she had been sickened to overhear two fellow teachers confess with grim pride that they had had to “give a good shellacking” to a few of the “animals” who threatened their job security and sabotaged their classrooms. Helen had actually started to cry when reporting this to Mario, who pointed out that, not only was this behavior appallingly racist, but it proved that Helen was in the right profession. “You can see the system needs you, right? You’ll be able to make a real difference. No one forgets a good teacher.”

In that case, who’d remember her? She enjoyed certain aspects of teaching (writing lesson plans, giving out gold stars and taking attendance) but hated so much else about her job, starting from the moment she punched into the time clock till her last dazed, angry steps from the school building. Not that it was sheer hell every minute. She was touched by her brightest and most vulnerable pupils and almost crazily elated when she managed to teach something. She sometimes wanted to embrace the whole enthusiastic gaggle of them, for instance when they crowded around her desk to watch as she opened their Valentines. Some of the roughest kids, the ones who came to school in outgrown hand-me-downs and bullied the younger children, wrote such fawning, needy messages. I love you Mrs. Hermann. You my best teacher.

She was cheating kids in exact proportion to their need for help.