Readings — From the March 2015 issue

Make Me Live

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By Nell Zink, from Mislaid, a novel, out in May from Ecco. Her previous novel, The Wallcreeper, was published last year.

Peggy Vaillaincourt was born in 1948 near Port Royal, Virginia, an only child. Her parents were well off but lived modestly, devoting their lives to the community. Her father was an Episcopal priest and the chaplain of a girls’ boarding school. Her mother was his wife — a challenging full-time job. This was before psychologists and counseling, so if a girl lost her appetite or a woman felt guilty after a D & C, she would come to Mrs. Vaillaincourt, who felt important as a result. The Reverend Vaillaincourt felt important all the time because he was descended from a family that had sheltered John Wilkes Booth.

The Vaillaincourts had a nice brick mansion on campus. Peggy went to the local white public school to avoid a conflict of interest. Her mother had gone to Bryn Mawr and regretted not sending Peggy to a better school. “Can’t you imagine a college that’s academically a little more intellectual?” she asked Peggy. “What about Wellesley?” But Peggy wanted to go to Stillwater, a women’s college in Southside — a former plantation, then a finishing school, currently a mecca for lesbians.

It came about like this: Her P.E. teacher, Miss Miller, had said something about her gym suit, and Peggy had realized she was intended to be a man. Gym suits were blue and baggy, but as you got older, they were less baggy and sort of cut into your crotch in a way that was suggestive of something, she didn’t know what. Miss Miller had stood in front of her and yanked her gym suit into position by pulling down on the legs. She placed her big hands around Peggy’s waist and said something to the effect that the gym suit had never fit Peggy right and never would.

Realizing that her girlhood was a mistake didn’t change her life immediately. She could still ride, play tennis, go camping with the Scouts, fish for crappie, and shoot turtles with a BB gun. Around age fourteen, it got more complicated. She informed her best friend, Debbie, that she intended to join the army out of high school. She knew Debbie from Girl Scout camp. Debbie was from Richmond, a large and diverse city. “You’re a thespian,” Peggy heard her say. “Get away from me.” Debbie picked up her blanket and moved to the other side of the room. Then Peggy’s life changed. Debbie had taught her to French-kiss and to dance shoeing the mule, knowledge that was supposed to arm them for a shared conquest of debutante balls. And now this. Betrayal. Debbie never spoke to her again. Peggy told her mother.

“A thespian,” her mother said, bemused. “Well, darling, everybody gets crushes.” Her mother was from the generation that thought a girl’s first love is always a tomboyish older girl. She gave Peggy Cress Delahanty to read. It was counterproductive. “You are not, absolutely not, going to join the army. Do you hear me? You are going to college. Get this out of your system. You’ll laugh at yourself someday.” Her mother suspected her of having a girlfriend already, and sent off for brochures about early admission to Radcliffe. She didn’t believe in coeducation, but her daughter’s plight called for desperate measures.

But Peggy didn’t have a girlfriend. Once she accepted an invitation from Miss Miller to a barbecue at the state park. There were only women there and no other girls. She recognized the woman everybody said was the maintenance man at the elementary school. It was indirectly the woman’s fault that Peggy thought of “man” as a job title. They were playing softball and taking it really seriously, hitting the ball so hard you could get hurt. Peggy left the party to play horseshoes with kids from the Baptist church instead and to get a ride home on their bus.

She began paying more attention to the thespians at school. They were fat girls and nice boys with scarves around their necks under their shirts. She auditioned for a part in Our Town and didn’t get it. Afterward the drama club went to the drugstore for milkshakes, and the director, a senior, explained to her about lesbians. He chuckled and shook his head a lot. Everybody else laughed so loud that Peggy felt inconspicuous, despite the topic. His voice was almost a whisper. “You and your friend Miss Miller are bull dykes. You should go to dyke bars in Washington. Or Stillwater College.”

“Miss Miller is not my friend!”

After that, word got back to Peggy’s mother, and Miss Miller and the maintenance man were fired and moved away. Peggy insisted Miss Miller had never done anything untoward. Becoming a man and a thespian had been her idea. Her mother said, “You have chosen a very difficult life for yourself.” Then they shopped for patterns, because Peggy’s debut was coming up, and lesbian or no lesbian, you had to have a tea-length off-the-shoulder dress made of boiled cotton with a flower print and tulle underskirts. Cutoff overalls were fine for hunting turtles in the woods, but even Peggy wanted to be pretty for cotillion. In the end she was so pretty she stopped herself cold. She stood in front of the full-length mirror in the ladies’ dressing room at the Jefferson Hotel in her slip and silk stockings and felt an almost overwhelming need to masturbate. She adjudged herself the prettiest girl she’d ever seen. “I feel pretty, oh so pretty,” she sang instead, waltzing with her dress as though it were a girl. Someone to love. Then she graduated and went off to Stillwater.

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