I have been waiting for the day my master’s degree in literature would return me something. So far the wait has been very, very long. But still one hopes, unless one is dead. The degree cost me ten thousand dollars and the worst year of my life. In the morning I would push myself out the door in Hoboken onto its desolate streets, walk half a mile to the PATH station, change trains at Herald Square, rattle up the left side of Manhattan, propel myself through the great black gates of the august university, then into some amphitheater smelling of epochal sweat and filled with the drone of Stanley Fish congratulating himself on being thus. At the end, a hundred students—my compatriots—would flow outdoors, and disappear. They vanished into the molecules of breeze that animated in slow motion the leaves of the ancient trees. I never knew any of their names. I never figured out where they went.
In the library I would look for the books I needed. They had all been checked out to members of the faculty years before, never to return. At the end of the day I reversed the morning’s process, capping it with the sound of the deadbolt on my apartment door slammed home. I was prisoner and guard both, the sentence solitary confinement.
Those were the days when books were as exciting as restaurants are now, the hard-to-get reservation and overwrought morsel on a Pacific ocean of plate—foam, reduction of berries, moss, possibly small twigs made cunningly edible and written about breathlessly—more important than life itself. The city’s used book stores (the pleasantly dirty shelves of the Barnes & Noble annex, the Strand, visited worshipfully, hopefully) gave me long happy hours. Still, I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to go to high church for books. If college was good, university would be better.
The disabusement of this quaint notion was as quick and violent as a two-by-four to the head: college was indeed about reading books, but university was about reading political currency. How well can you rephrase the party platform? (The more abstrusely the better.) This was not what I wanted! Moreover, I did not want to not do what I wanted in the company of . . . no one.
I had not made it into Yale. My boyfriend, however, did. On a full ride. My visits there were drenched in envy, though I could pretend for a weekend that I too belonged here. We sat with other students from the comp lit department in cozy booths in the student center, talking for hours; we separated to do work in the library of our choice. Sometimes I would retire to the Beinecke Rare Book Library, filled with a creamy cool light emanating from the impossibly thin Vermont marble that were its windows; such was the magic of this place that stone could be unstoned, gracefully relieved of its rocky essence. Sometimes I would find a desk in the magisterial Sterling Memorial Library, a cathedral of books wherein, as described by the university, ”almost every available wood, stone, and plaster surface, is carved [with] a design that will remind the viewer of the dignity and significance of learning in general and of libraries in particular.” The significance fell on us heavy as fur mantles. Lined up with precision on the shelves set aside for each class were the soldiers of essential texts: twelve pristine copies of the book I so desperately needed, the single copy of which had vanished forever from Butler Library back home. I loved Yale, but I wish I had never seen it.
That I chose to write a thesis on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—a work whose words and story both utterly escape me now—seems a testament to my state of mind: lost. I felt pretty much nothing for medieval literature. One of the readers claimed she could not understand what I wrote because my grammar was so broken. So was I.
I had told myself I would write about Moby-Dick in my second year, and finally get my mind back, but there was to be no second year. The loneliness of it all had done me in. I would crumple their letter, exegetically read as congratulating me on having passed the first-year hazing, which offered a full scholarship and teaching assistantship to continue on to the doctorate, and toss it into the empty metal olive barrel that was my wastecan.
Even grad students need some wind-down, and at night when I was exhausted from the day’s wrestling matches with public transportation and literary theory, I fell into the consoling embrace of Mary Tyler Moore. There were back-to-back reruns of the old show into the night on my minute black-and-white TV. More even than Yale I wished to matriculate in Mary’s world. Her travails always ended in twenty-five minutes and with much smiling. She perennially rose to the top, with hair and shirtwaist unmarred. I fell asleep to her voice.
Halfway through the second term, having one day miraculously found a seat on the PATH train and thus the opportunity to take the strap of my Danish book bag off the shoulder it was excavating, I looked up from my book. The person standing there had said, “Excuse me. Aren’t you in my Edward Said seminar?” (The one in which the teacher had asked, “Who would like to be a generalist?” and I simultaneously discovered I had the only raised hand and that the question had been ironically rhetorical. Of course no one, only me.)
Jim became the only friend I made that year, but he was the only one I needed, because Jim contained multitudes. It did not take us long to discover our basic commonality: not that we lived in the same small burg far from our hopes and aspirations, but that we both needed Mary Tyler Moore. He phoned every morning, and we relived what episodes we had stayed awake long enough to consider for essential life lessons. When we met for beers at the Elysian to discuss intractable educational dilemmas, we found a shortcut to the answer, always the answer. What would Mary do?
I have long had the belief that someday, although I can’t foresee when, my terminal MA will lift me from a dark and empty sea before it swallows me forever; it will be a lifesaver thrown from a small boat that has happened by. It had to have been for something, the loan I worked to pay off for years, and the year that almost pulverized me.
It has not happened yet; there is still time. Until then, I will remember I have lived many lives, and when one is over another always begins. I have a witness to this usual miracle. My friend Jim. But I have not watched Mary in years, and I miss her.