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.
The college sat on the fall line south of Petersburg. One half of the campus was elevated over the other half, and the waters above were separated from the waters below by a ledge with stone outcroppings. The waters below lay still, and the waters above flowed down. They seeped into the sandy ground before they had time to form a stream. That’s why the plantation that became the college had been named Stillwater. The main house overlooked a lake that lay motionless as though it had been dug with shovels and hand-lined with clay. But the lake had been there as long as anyone could remember. It had no visible outlet, and no docks because a piling might puncture the layer of clay. Nobody swam in the lake because of the leeches in the mud. There was no fishing because girls don’t fish.
For freshman orientation Peggy bobbed her hair and took up smoking cigarillos. She had bought some new outfits at an army surplus store. She did not question her childhood equation of liking girls with being a man, and in black khakis and a black crew-neck sweater, she found herself rough, tough, and intimidating. She looked darling. The short cut made her curly hair form a crown of soft ringlets. She regarded her narrow hips and flat chest as boyish, but in 1965 they were chic.
Also, as much as she wanted to be a man, she was revolted by hairiness, fat bellies, belching, vulgarity, etc. Her slim father wore ascots and got manicures. His face was soft and his shirts had monogrammed cuffs. She thought black penny loafers with white socks à la Gene Kelly was the epitome of working-class butch.
The campus was a complete universe. You never had to leave. There were visiting boyfriends and girlfriends from other schools, parties and mixers, intercollegiate sports, a mess hall and a commissary, even a soda fountain. As self-contained as an army base. But no basic training. No cleaning, no cooking. The work you had to do consisted of things like ponder Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you screwed it up, they didn’t criticize you. They invited you to their offices, offered you sherry, and asked you what was wrong. I can’t believe it, Peggy thought. My parents are paying for me to do this for four years. She decided to major in creative writing. She wanted to write plays for her fellow thespians.
Peggy was attracted to a sophomore from Winchester who was boarding her horse at a stable up in the hills. This girl routinely wore fawn jodhpurs and ankle boots, and every day for breakfast she ate ice cream, which the cook kept for her in the freezer. Because her valuable horse needed to be ridden every afternoon, she was permitted to have a car. Seniors were allowed cars, but only if they were on the honor roll and had no demerits. Since among seniors demerits were considered a badge of honor, the sophomore, Emily, was currently the only student allowed to drive. She was majoring in art history and planned to join her father’s import-export business.
Peggy stared at her and smiled until she was invited to sit in the passenger seat of her Chrysler New Yorker, parked behind the former dairy barn. Emily talked about her horse. After a while Peggy, who was turned toward Emily with her hands in her lap, struggling to concentrate and look fetching at the same time, felt her soul rebel. She thought she had never heard — or even heard of — anything so boring in her life, outside of church. Peggy tried mentioning a class they were in together. She mentioned the town she grew up in. She mentioned a movie she had seen recently and wondered if Emily had seen it. Eventually she said, “I didn’t really come out here to talk about horse shows.”
That was a mistake. Emily looked at the windshield and said, “Then you’re stupid, because you like me, and that’s what I want to talk about.”
Peggy got out of the car and walked into the trees. She heard the car door slam and saw Emily pull away around the corner of the barn. The beeches were starting to turn yellow and the Virginia creeper was already fire-engine red. Peggy consoled herself with their appearance, as she thought a more sensitive person might.
Stillwater had a famous poet on the faculty. His name was Lee Fleming. He had a job there as an English professor, and was so well respected that other famous poets came all the way to Stillwater to see him. The smartass owner of the white snack bar in town called them “international faggotry” and always asked if they wanted mayonnaise with their coffee.
Lee was a local young man who had given his family a lot of trouble growing up. After boarding school they sent him to college far away in New York City. When they heard of his doings up there, they gave him an ultimatum: Stop dragging the family name in the dirt, or be cut off without a cent.
Lee hadn’t been conscious up until then that he had anything to gain by being a Fleming. That is, he hadn’t realized he didn’t have money of his own.
His parents were wealthy. But he had expectations and an allowance, not money. His father suggested he move to a secluded place. Queer as a three-dollar bill doesn’t matter on posted property. Lee’s father was a pessimist. He imagined muscle-bound teaboys doing bad things to Lee, and he didn’t want passersby to hear the screaming. He offered him the house on the opposite side of Stillwater Lake from the college.
It was a wood-frame Victorian that Lee’s grandfather got for nothing during the Depression. It had been disassembled where it stood and rebuilt on a brick foundation facing the lake. It was supposed to be a summer place. But it was inconvenient to get to, far from any city, swarming with deerflies, and instead of a boathouse, it had a thicket of bamboo. So nobody ever used the house. It just stood there on Fleming land, taking up space. Still, when it came time to clear-cut the trees and sell them for the war effort, Mr. Fleming couldn’t bring himself to do it. The house looked so nice with big maples and tulip poplars around it. The trail to the water led through suggestive shoots of old bamboo that were as big around as juice cans.
Lee was not the man his family took him for. As a lover he was a faithful romantic, always getting his feelings hurt. But he was a top. He never could get it right. He could put on a broadcloth shirt and gray slacks and wing tips and look as much a man as an Episcopalian ever does, but then he would place himself squarely in front of total strangers, maintaining eye contact as he spoke to them of poetry. So everybody in the county was calling him a fairy inside of a month. But he was a Fleming, and a top. He was untouchable. The local Klan wizard worked at his father’s sawmill. The Pentecostal preacher lived in his father’s trailer park. The worshipful master of the Prince Hall Masonic lodge drove one of his father’s garbage trucks. The county seat was in a crossing called Fleming Courthouse, and the Amoco station was Fleming’s American. No one openly begrudged him a house in the woods by a lake with no fishing.
Lee was serious about poetry. He thought America was where all the most important work of the 1960s was being done. He really meant it, and could explain it. John Ashbery, Howard Nemerov, and his favorite: Robert Penn Warren. Then the Beats. He had met them all in New York, and they all had a weakness for handsome Southerners who owned counties.
At first Lee had nothing to do with the college. But then a poet friend remarked that a girls’ college in the middle of nowhere sounded like something from Fellini, and Lee got an idea. He asked the English department to pay for a visit from Gregory Corso.
Poets came all the way from Richmond to hear him. But the girls stayed cool and distant, even through “Marriage.” Corso went back to New York and told people that Lee lived in a time capsule where Southern womanhood was not dead. Two publishers and a novelist transferred their daughters to Stillwater.
In short, the college helped Lee and Lee helped the college, and they signed him up to teach a poetry course. He didn’t ask for a salary at first. Instead he asked the college to pay for his literary magazine, to be called Stillwater Review.
Three years later, Stillwater Review was selling thousands of copies and keeping ten students busy reading submissions, and Lee was teaching three courses a semester: English poetry in the fall or American poetry in the spring, along with criticism and a writing workshop.
He commuted to work in a canoe, rain or shine. When he pulled it up in front of his house, it plugged the gap in the bamboo like a garden gate. No student had ever been invited to the house. There were stories. John Ashbery shooting a sleeping whitetail fawn from a distance of three yards. Howard Nemerov on mescaline putting peppermint extract in spaghetti sauce. To hear one of the stories, you had to know someone from somewhere else who knew someone who had been invited — a cousin at Sarah Lawrence whose boyfriend’s brother was queer. Stillwater Lake might as well have been the Berlin Wall.
Freshmen were not eligible for Lee Fleming’s writing workshop. You had to take his other courses first.
Peggy thought this a ridiculous barrier. “How am I supposed to understand poetry if I’ve never written any myself?” she said to Lee in the third week of her first semester in his cozy office in a garret of the main building.
“How do you expect to get into my workshop if you’ve never written a poem?”
“Aren’t you supposed to teach us?”
“You’ve already missed the first two meetings.”
“Can I audit?”
“It’s impossible to audit a workshop. You have to do the work.”
“So can I enroll?”
“Name me one poet you admire.”
Lee leaned back. “Anne Sexton? Why?”
“She doesn’t sound so good, but she’s got something to say. I read Hopkins or Dylan Thomas and I think, These cats sound cool all right, but do they have something to say?”
“Maybe they’re saying something you don’t understand.”
“Then make me understand it.”
“That’s like saying, ‘Make me live.’ ”
“Then make me take your workshop.”
“No. You think poetry is supposed to be about you, and you don’t know how to read. If you can’t read Milton, you can’t read Dylan Thomas. Take my course in English poetry.”
“And read Milton? No thanks.”
“Then you’ll never be my student.”
“I’m changing my major to French.”
“Don’t be childish.”
“Is it childish to know what you want?”
“I want you to take my course,” Lee began, then stopped, realizing he had said something unusual and slightly embarrassing.
Peggy stood glaring at him, and he glared back.
She offered him a cigarillo. She sat down on the edge of his desk to light it for him, leaning over gracefully with her hands cupped around the match, a smiling seventeen-year-old girl with curly hair like springs, and he realized he had a hard-on.
“Forget the whole thing,” Peggy was saying. “I can write plays without your help. I don’t even need Anne Sexton’s help. Screw her and Milton and the horse they rode in on.”
“Sounds like a natural-born writer to me,” he said. “I would very much appreciate your taking my course in English poetry.”
“I was serious. I don’t want in your workshop, even if it means I never see you again.”
He looked around as if to indicate their surroundings — the Stillwater campus, all eight acres of it — and laughed.
Peggy didn’t take his course. A week later she accepted his invitation to kneel in the front of his canoe while he pushed off from the marshy, leech-infested bank with a paddle. The first thing he said was, “This is not a date.” Then he moved toward her in the darkness and pulled her hips toward his, sliding his hands down the sides of her butt, and kissed her, because to be honest with himself (as he became much later), he didn’t know any other mode of behavior in the canoe. The canoe tipped from side to side, and Peggy was very still and solemn. It was so exciting he couldn’t figure it out. She was androgynous, like the boys he liked, but she made him wonder if he liked boys or just had been meeting the wrong kind of girl. He thought about her genitalia and decided it didn’t make much difference. Her body was female, female, female. Everywhere he touched, it curved away from him, fleeing. He felt between her legs, and it vanished. The abyss.
Peggy felt she was being held in the palm of God’s hand. Not because he was a famous poet and the most respected teacher at her school, but because he was a man, and powerful, physically. In all her fantasies she’d been the man, and had to please some pleading lover. But now a person had voluntarily dedicated himself to serving her desires. She had never expected that, ever. It violated her work ethic. She felt a wish to speak and opened her eyes, and the poet in the black mackintosh was staring down into them, rain beating down around them, and they were surrounded on every side by water. It was a good bit more sexy and romantic than anything she had dared to imagine.
Each was mystified, but for very different reasons. Peggy had thought she would die a virgin and had never given a moment’s thought to birth control. And now it looked as though she might be a virgin for maybe ten more minutes. “I’m a virgin,” she said.
“That can be taken care of,” Lee said.
“No, I mean it,” she said. “This is a big deal. You have to promise me.”
“I promise you everything.” He kissed her. “Everything.”
He was mystified that he would say something like that to anyone — male, female, eunuch, hermaphrodite, sheep, tree. He looked her in the eyes and decided she wasn’t paying attention.
He landed the canoe and carried her into the house.