"That's silly," she said when I told her this after we were married. "I wasn't too beautiful for you to speak to. I never thought so, not ever."
"If you didn't think you were too good looking," I asked her, "then why didn't you come up and talk to me in the first place?"
"That's a good question," she said, and I never did get the answer.
But back to our senior seminar, where we were to choose our paths, and Anne Marie's path was lidsthose plastic travel lids you put on your coffee and soda cups. This was in the spring of our senior year, and Anne Marie had the misfortune of giving her presentation right after James Nagali, the only other male student at Our Lady of the Lake, who gave a masterly speech on new soap-dispensing technologies. James was from Ivory Coast, and immediately after graduation he went to work for Ivory soap, but I don't think there's any connection.
Our teacher for the seminar was Professor Eisner, a mostly bald man who looked like a walking advertisement for forehead and who, it was rumored, had screwed up a supposedly revolutionary sanitary napkin packaging design that had cost Procter and Gamble a million dollars or twowhich was why, the rumor went, he had ended up teaching us. Professor Eisner gushed over James's presentation, but not over Anne Marie's. He pointed out certain structural flaws in her lid designs; he asked her rhetorically if she knew what it felt like to have hot coffee pour not into your mouth but onto your chin and down your neck; he asked Anne Marie if she had learned nothing in her four years as an Our Lady of the Lake packaging-science major; he asked her if she had any contingency plans for when the offers from all the prestigious firms didn't come rolling in. "Because roll in they certainly will not," he said.
It's true that Anne Marie wasn't exactly a born packaging scientist, and it's also true that her lids, had they ever been manufactured (they weren't), would have burned a few faces and spawned a few lawsuits. But still, I didn't like the way Eisner was talking to her. I looked over at Anne Marie, and while she didn't look a bit upset, not anywhere near tearsshe was a tough one, and still isAnne Marie was playing with her gold crucifix necklace in an agitated manner, and I felt I had to say something in her defense.
"Hey, Professor Eisner," I said. "Ease up a little. Be nice." It's true I didn't exactly scream this at the top of my lungs, and it's also possible that Professor Eisner might not have heard me at all, because he moved right on to the next presentation, but the important thing was that Anne Marie heard. "Thank you," Anne Marie said to me after class.
"For what?" I asked, although I knew, because, of course, I'd said what I'd said so she'd thank me, because there's not a pure motive in me or in anyone else, I don't think.
"For standing up for me."
"You're welcome," I said. "Would you like to have dinner?"
"With you?" she asked.
This was just the way she talkedbluntly and always in pursuit of the simple truthand it didn't suggest anything negative about her true feelings for me. As proof, we did have dinner, at this German place in Springfield called the Student Prince. She was the rare thin Italian girl who liked German food; you couldn't talk her out of the Munich sausage platter, and this was just one of the reasons I fell in love with her. And then a month later we slept together, in my apartment, which happened to be directly above the Student Prince. There must be something of my modest parents in me, because I won't say anything about the sex except that I enjoyed it. But I will say that I missed my virginity, maybe because I'd had it for so long, and right afterwardmy face so hot and red it felt like something nuclearI said to Anne Marie, "I was a virgin."
Excerpted from An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke © 2007 by Brock Clarke. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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