"Look here!" she exclaimed, whisking Letty's paper off her desk and holding it up. Two or three construction paper "leaves" fluttered to the floor. "Now this is a tree!"
Letty's tree was good. She'd painstakingly shredded her paper into pieces so small and massed them with such intricate variation that the crown gave the effect of actual foliage. Her work was not only good, it was, I recognized with a pang, better than mine, which now looked clumsy and haphazard--the efforts of a child--in comparison. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to beam at Letty, who kept her head bent, shyly hiding a small, proud smile. Nevertheless, I was not happy for her. I was instead trying to console myself by noting that she had had the advantage of the sort of glue that dispensed only a small amount when you pressed the rubber applicator against the page, whereas I was forced to use the much more difficult to manage Elmer's. I even, for one brief second, disparaged her in my mind for putting so much energy into such a banal assignment.
Even as I experienced these feelings, I was deeply ashamed of them, and that shame is the only thing that now keeps me from utterly despising my small self. But while on the one hand I vowed never again to begrudge Letty her success, on the other, I promised myself that from that moment forward I would strain to the utmost, no matter what the project, so as never to be in a position to feel such chagrin again. That was the lesson I learned from first grade.
Letty was never so driven, which was at least in part the fault of her family. I think her parents must have had big plans for her when they named her Letitia, but there was never all that much get-up-and-go in the Larue household, and they let her name lapse into Letty almost immediately.
My mother was much more firm of purpose. "Please call her Margaret," she would say forbiddingly to everyone, even the well-intentioned mailman, who tried to shorten my name. My name, of course, presented a minefield of opportunities for corruptions--Meg, Peggy, Maggie, Margie, Maisie, Rita, Gretchen. She would accept none of them.
"Why?" I begged many times, especially during my Little Women period.
"Because your father and I named you Margaret," she said. "When you're older, you can let people call you whatever you decide, but I want to get a decent run out of the name we chose."
"Don't you like your name?" my father asked, puzzled and a little hurt.
I realize now that it wasn't the name I didn't like, but Margaret herself, whom I was beginning to find a little bossy. Margaret was admired, but Peggy, I believed, would be well liked. The way Letty was.
When I'd told Ted over our very late breakfast that I planned to work that afternoon and couldn't go with him on our regular Saturday ramble through the city, he was sweetly disappointed. "I thought you worked this morning. You don't need to write the whole thing the first week."
"I know, but I want to get a good bite out of it. If I just get half a chapter done this weekend, then I'll have a head start on Monday, when I can really buckle down while you're at work."
"You're right," he said. "If you think you'll get something done, you should work. Maybe we'll go to a movie tonight, then."
"Maybe," I said, "but I might be pretty far into my story by then. I may not want another narrative intruding."
Our kiss at the door savored of our great expectations for me.
I microwaved a cup of leftover coffee before I sat down at the table, turned on my laptop, and retrieved the document I'd named "Novel." Elaine with her ridiculous hair leapt onto the screen. I read over the single sentence I'd composed that morning. It seemed flat. It was going nowhere. "Pearly dawn" was pretentious. What had I been thinking, I wondered, pressing the delete key firmly? I couldn't write a novel just by stringing sentences together. I needed a plan, a sense of what I wanted to say. What did I want to say?
Excerpted from All Is Vanity by Christina Schwarz. Copyright 2002 by Christina Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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