I WAS A PROMISING CHILD. When I was seven, I spent an entire week hunkered down on the cranberry red carpeting in my father's study, building a scale model of the Temple of Athena at Paestum. I carved the columns out of Ivory soap with a paring knife and pushed red clay through my Play-Doh press to tile over the Styrofoam roof. I painted a frieze, which was cheating and ultimately unsatisfactory, since it was not authentically three-dimensional. My father wondered why not the Parthenon, but I wasn't interested in the obvious.
"Everyone knows the Parthenon, Dad," I said, in a superior tone, although, in fact, I knew no one other than he who was at all acquainted with the Greeks.
Three months after I'd finished my temple, my little brother, Warren, was parking his Hot Wheels in it.
When I was eight, I sewed two chamois I swiped from the garage into a little dress in the style of the Lakota Sioux. You'd think this would be less ambitious than the Temple of Athena, but the beadwork was extensive. Beads were very big then--my friends and I sat cross-legged on the driveway with little cups of color-coded plastic treasure near our knees and threaded them on elastic to give to one another as necklaces and bracelets. I had to cut apart five of the six chokers my very best friend, Letty, had given me to get enough beads just to finish the bodice of the dress.
My mother was less pleased with the Lakota costume than she'd been with the temple. Architecture, yes. Sewing, no. But at that point in my career, I didn't care what my mother or anyone else thought. I didn't care that the columns of my temple had bits of sticky string tied around them--to pump the gas, Warren explained--my pleasure was all in the making.
I could go on--I laid out the city of Ur in clay on the Ping-Pong table, rendered a map of Asia as experienced by Marco Polo, compiled a catalog of Scottish clans, and produced a page of medieval-looking illumination with hand-mixed inks--but I think my point is clear. I was precocious. I was enthusiastic, unswerving, creative. I had imagination. It took me only twenty years to realize that none of this mattered.
What you find out in your thirties is that clever children are a dime a dozen. It's what you do later that counts, and so far I had done nothing.
But I was going to change that, starting right now, this morning, Saturday, June 15. I'd set the alarm for four forty-five and was at my desk by five. The sky over Lower Manhattan was the gray of used wash water. I would shower around nine, I decided, to refresh myself after logging a decent morning's work. I had easy to hand two new and newly sharpened pencils--the soft number ones I liked--and a legal pad for notes. The cursor pulsed eagerly on the blank screen before me. I drew my feet under me and sat on my heels. I leaned forward, ready, nearly holding my breath. It seemed as though, with just a nudge, my novel would spin from my pent-up imagination in skeins of gorgeous, moving words.
"Elaine pushed her fingers through her long, dark hair in the pearly dawn," I typed--it was the first sentence that came into my head--and then rested a moment, reaching to tease from my own hair a snarl the cat had painstakingly worked into it during the night. Why "Elaine"? Should my main character have the name that came first into my head? Shouldn't the name suit the character the way "Daisy" suited Daisy Buchanan? With one of my pencils, I printed neatly on the legal pad--"Buy baby-naming book."
"Margaret?" My husband's voice came from the bedroom, muffled by down comforter and sleep.
"Ted, I'm working," I said, a touch of righteous indignation in my tone.
"Come back to bed," he murmured dreamily.
Fourteen hours before, I'd been an English teacher at Gordonhurst Academy, a private school on the Upper East Side. The administration had put on a little party in the Marshall Room to send off all of us who weren't coming back in the fall with Chinese chicken salad, a favorite cafeteria offering, and grape juice made adult by the addition of cranberry and seltzer. One by one, we were called to stand before the portrait of Fitzhugh Marshall to collect a handshake and a gift--Suzy Cargill, an art teacher, who was having a baby and had decided to stay home for a year; Valerie Finkelstein, who was trading biology classes for med school; John Kingsley, who was moving to St. Louis to be with his girlfriend; and Penny Burich, who had won the outstanding teacher award the year before and was going to Columbia for a doctorate to become an even better teacher than she already was.
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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No Man's Land
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