My memory of Stella, at nineteen, is neither as crisp nor as
detailed as it should be. It's only with a tremendous effort of
will that I can bring her into focus at all. She is wearing a
complicated black outfit that looks like rags pinned together
with safety pins, and black stockings, with deliberate runs
laddering her legs. Her skin is translucent, the color of skim
milk, and her matted, dyed blond hair looks about as plausibly
human as the hair of a much loved doll. Under her eyes are
extravagant circles, plum colored and deep. She always looks
haggard. No one that age looked haggard the way she looked
haggard. And yet, as one came to know her, that was part of her
Stella was from the South. I remember her being from a trailer park, but it may have been a small, sleepy town. She had some sort of unspeakable tragedy in her background, which added to the quality of southern gothic she cultivated. In my picture of her, she is curled up on a mahogany windowsill, with a Faulkner novel, but in reality, she was one of those brilliant college students whose minds are clamoring too loudly with their own noise to read much.
On good days, Stella looked as if she were late to the most important meeting of her life; on bad days, she looked if she were being hunted down by organized and insidious forces. She was also one of the most powerful people in our Harvard class. She was monumentally, conspicuously damaged in a way that was, to us then, ineffably chic. She had an entourage of followers and hangers-on, mostly men of ambiguous sexual preference whose mothers had given them exotic, weighty names like Byron and Ulysses. She had an authentically doomed streak that was to the rest of us, future bankers, editors, lawyers, future parents of one point five children, and mortgage holders, uniquely appealing. And the whole time I knew her she was writing something--a detective story? a play? a thriller?--something with a murder in it, I think, but whatever it was, it added to the impression that she was engaged in more important endeavors than the rest of us. She talked in the cartoon bubbles of comic book characters: "Oh ho." Or "Jumping Juniper." Or "Iced cold beverage," or "Eek." This was part of an elaborate, stylized defense, against the softness associated with sincerity.
And yet, the perfection of her cool was pleasantly undermined by an ambience of frazzled vulnerability. She was overweight, and had a flinching relationship with her own body. If you caught a glimpse of her coming down Plympton Street at dusk, you might mistake her self-deprecating shuffle for that of a homeless person. In retrospect, I can see that she was kind of wonderful looking, with her fabulous, disheveled gestalt, but at the time being overweight was an enormous, almost insurmountable, taboo. She had a great, pure throaty laugh, which went along with a child's pleasure in the smallest things. I can see her clapping her hands in delight over a chocolate sundae or a gardenia-scented candle.
Excerpted from The Friend Who Got Away by Edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell Copyright © 2005 by Jenny Offill. 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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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