This is the first chapter of a novel I’ll never finish. I wrote it in 1995 and published it on my personal web site, and then lost track of it. I recently found it again via the Wayback Machine on Archive.org. Many thanks to whoever thought to archive it there!
The View From Here
by Amy T. Goodloe
copyright © 1998. 2014. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
do not reproduce without permission
PART 1: SARA
The View from Here, chapter 1 copyright © 1995, 1996. Amy T. Goodloe do not reproduce without permission PART 1: SARA Chapter 1 “What do you mean? I never said that my writing was any more important than yours. What gave you that idea?” Sara gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands. She wanted to look Abby in the eye when she spoke but looked at her knuckles instead.
Abby was picking at the cherry red nail polish on her toes, which were perched on the dashboard. “You implied it.” “When? When did I ever imply that?” Sara asked, trying to concentrate on the road but finding herself distracted by the tiny red flakes falling on the freshly vacuumed floormat. She tried to look at Abby’s face out of the corner of her eye but couldn’t quite focus.
“Last night, I was trying to read you that scene from my play, and you weren’t paying attention. I needed to know if the dialog between John and Laurel was believable, but you weren’t even listening to me.”
“Honey, I’m on my way to give a very important paper at a very important conference. My future in academia might rest on this paper, for all I know.” Sara took a long sip from her milshake, soothing the beginning of a sore throat. “That’s just what I mean. This play is very important to me.” Abby looked out the window as she spoke, but continued to pick at her toes.
“I’m sorry,” Sara said. “I can give you a lot more feedback after the weekend. If I can just get through this weekend, I’ll have a lot more free time. I promise. I can barely concentrate on anything right now, and I’m sorry about that.”
“So I’ve noticed. You didn’t even see those guys staring at you back there.”
“In the Burger Hut. They were practically drooling, looking at your breasts. I thought the one guy was going to drop your french fries. I can’t believe you didn’t see that.”
Sara took a bite of her sandwich and chewed it thoroughly before replying. “Well I didn’t. I stopped paying attention to burger boys a long time ago. I thought you did too, or do you have something to confess?” she asked, trying to get Abby to smile, but Abby wouldn’t look over at her. She looked down at her white tank top, at her dark pink nipples visible through the white ribbed fabric, and felt slightly embarassed.
“I don’t get it,” she continued. “Guys can show their nipples whenever the please, but a woman can’t? How different are… Ugh.” Sara pursed her lips. “I don’t remember there being something this chewy in the Chicken Deluxe.” Without taking her eyes off the road Sara plunged her hand into the Burger Hut bag and searched urgently for a napkin. “Maybe I should have put on another shirt.”
Abby took the wadded up napkin from Sara and put it in the trash bag behind her seat. “You never know what they put in those so-called chicken sandwiches. You should’ve ordered the salad. And besides, that’s not the point.” Abby balanced a cherry tomato at the end of her fork, pausing for effect.
“What’s not the point?”
Abby looked over at Sara for a full minute, without saying anything.
“So how is that salad?” Sara asked, offering Abby some of her large order of fries. Abby took a handful but said nothing. She began twirling her long brown hair into tiny ringlets.
Sara looked at the road ahead of her, and at the mountains rising to her right. Going this direction felt like going home, to her home in Syracuse when she was in graduate school. She had traveled the road from Boston to Syracuse so many times before, going to see Abby in Boston on the weekends, until she finally loaded up the car with all her things and made that final trip. She had been living in the Boston area for two years and hadn’t been back to Syracuse until now, and hadn’t wanted to go back, either, but she had been asked to present a paper at an important conference for her field. She didn’t expect the road to feel so familiar, or the memories to come back with such force.
“I can drive for a while if you’d like,” Abby offered. “Maybe that would help you feel less nervous?” She began going through the cassette tapes in the glove compartment, taking each tape out and turning it around before putting it back in its little plastic box.
Sara looked at Abby sidewise, with her right eyebrow raised.
“What?” Abby asked.
It wasn’t so much that Abby’s driving made even sixteen year old nervous, but Sara had a thing about being in control of her destiny. Being the driver ran in her family. Her grandmother had lost her license when she was 81 because she refused to wear corrective lenses, and she went from perfect health to her death in a matter of months.
“What do you mean ‘what’? You know how I am about driving. But I guess I should take you up on it this time, maybe when we cross the NY State line. I should probably re-read my paper and think about some of the questions they might ask me. I wish I had spent more time on this, but I don’t know where I would’ve found it. Did I tell you that Anne Phillips will be there, the woman whose book I’m arguing against?”
The sound of cassette boxes opening and closing was beginning to get on Sara’s nerves and she was hoping to engage Abby in conversation. Abby was normally a calm, laid back passenger, but she seemed agitated, almost angry. “Are you excited about seeing her?” Abby asked, as she closed the last cassette box and then closed the glove compartment. She began scrunching up handfuls of her skirt.
“Who, Anne? I’ve never even met her!” Nervous was more the word she would use to describe how she felt about meeting Anne. Sara’s paper was a direct rebuttal of an argument Anne had made in a recently published and widely acclaimed book on the role of gender in a couple of the same medieval devotional texts that Sara had done her doctoral work on. She had published several smaller papers on the topic, with vague references to Anne’s work, but this time she was being asked to offer a direct counterpoint to the book, with Anne present!
“No, I mean Judith. Aren’t you excited about seeing Judith?” Abby twisted handfuls of her blue cotton skirt into long, thin ropes.
“Judith? Well yeah, sure, it’ll be great to see her. But I’m scared to death of meeting Anne Phillips. I’ve heard she’s just a few years older than me, but I have this idea that she’s some stately, gray haired matron of medieval studies who calls her grandkids Gawain and Piers and writes her grocery list in Middle English. “
“Like that other scholar whose work you took on, the time Judith defended you?
“Yes, although I dare say he probably does write his grocery lists in Middle English, on dusty old pieces of parchment. He was such a dusty old man himself. And so out of touch with medieval studies today! My paper was based on a pretty standard feminist argument, but he lashed out at me as though I’d accused him, personally, for all the injustices done to women throughout time.”
“Judith’s defense of you was classic.
“Yes, it was.” Sara smiled warmly at the memory. “I knew she had it in her but I never imagined I’d see her stand up to a major scholar that way. She was very protective of me, of my work; I almost think she took his attack personally. I wish she could stand up to her husband like that, when he cuts down her work.”
They both fell silent for a moment and Sara’s mind drifted back to Judith’s office, four years ago. She had been waiting outside the office to meet with Judith about her thesis, the first draft of which was due in two weeks. The phone rang just as the 1:00 student left Judith’s office, and she motioned to Sara to wait a moment while she answered the call. It was her husband, Michael, who taught at the University of Maryland, about four hours away. Judith only saw him on weekends, and never seemed to talk about him to Sara, but she could always tell when they’d had a conversation because Judith would seem deflated, not her usual confident, brilliant self.
Sara was surprised when Judith didn’t tell him she’d call back but instead pushed the office door shut. She was trying to keep her voice down, but Sara could tell she was upset. Just a few days ago Sara had finished reading and commenting on Judith’s’ latest manuscript, on a woman who wrote poetry about the same time as Shakespeare but about whom little else was known. Sara had thought the piece was excellent, and that her argument was solidly made, if a little too theoretically dense in places. But judging from the conversation she could just barely hear, Michael had a very different opinion. Michael never liked any of Judith’s work, and was always trying to encourage her to write more like him, which meant to write simply, with authority, and, Sara thought, with very little theoretical sophistication. Or at any rate, with a different theoretical slant than Judith tended to take. Sara felt pretty sure that Michael was just threatened by the slightly angry feminist tone of some of Judith’s work, and by the delight she so clearly took in discovering these women writers who argued on behalf of women’s rights even in the Renaissance.
But then it was true that the establishment had rewarded Michael, while it continued to all but ignore Judith. Michael had tenure at UM, had published three books and a dozen articles, and was forever encouraging Judith to give up working at the university level. His dream was for her to find a job teaching English at a private school in Maryland, so that they could live together again and start a family. Sara knew that wasn’t Judith’s dream, and she didn’t see much point in a marriage where one of Judith’s students knew her better than her own husband.
Sara sometimes wondered if anyone else knew Judith as well as she did, after two years as her student, her friend, her colleague. She had known that Judith would be a powerful influence on her even before she had ever spoken to her. Judith gave a presentation on the influence of French Feminism on Milton Studies for Sara’s “Intro. to Grad Studies” class, and Sara was smitten by Judith’s smile, her nervous habit of brushing her hair out of her eyes and giggling softly, the way her words came out faster as she became more excited by her topic. She talked about literature in a way that made complete sense to Sara, unlike most of the other professors who had droned on about the importance of Foucault and the absolute brilliance of postmodernism. Sara had decided then, at the very start of her master’s program, that she would study under Judith, although she had never really thought about specializing in Renaissance literature before.
Sara resented Michael, and was jealous of the hold he had on Judith’s attention. She knew that he wasn’t capable of really seeing her, of appreciating her for who she was. He could see that she was beautiful, but not that she was brilliant, or if he did see it, he did everything he could to keep her from seeing it herself. Sara could tell by her tone of voice that Judith was believing him, that whatever he was saying about her manuscript was having the effect he no doubt intended it to have. She sounded crushed, defeated, and it was all Sara could do to keep from going into the office and… and… She didn’t know what she wanted to do — to slam the phone down? to tell Judith how smart she was? to hold her, maybe?
“I wonder if he’ll even be there,” Sara said out loud. Abby was smoothing out the wrinkled circles on her skirt, slowly and methodically.
“Michael, Judith’s husband. I don’t think he’s ever been to any of the conferences she’s spoken at, but she’s a featured speaker this time. You know, I’ve never even met Michael, but I feel like I know so much about him. And I know instinctively that I wouldn’t like him.” Sara began to fiddle with the car radio, trying to tune in a local station.
“Just like you knew you wouldn’t like my parents.” Abby reached over to the back of Sara’s neck and began twirling and twisting long strands of blonde hair.
“How can you like people who claim to love their child or spouse or whomever and then never show it? It still just amazes me that your parents have never been to one of your performances, ever. And that they don’t even seem to realize there’s something wrong with that! How can they not be proud of you? You are amazing!”
Abby smiled, but only half heartedly. She dug through her backpack and pulled out her notebook, and began adding to the doodling that spread halfway down the back cover.
Sara looked over at her with concern. Abby’s shoulders were raised slightly and Sara could see her jaw muscles working slowly, back and forth, grinding.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You know how angry I get about your parents. I don’t mean to bring it up because I know it’s painful, but it just drives me nuts to see people being so insecure that they can’t even praise the people they say they love!”
Abby doodled for a few seconds more, then took in a deep breath. “It’s not that, Sara.”
“Then what is it? Is it about the conversation we had last night?” Sara could feel her own shoulders tensing. They had had a really intense conversation the night before, about whether or not Sara was going to take the job she had been offered in Chicago. Or at least that’s what it was supposed to be about. Sara’s head was still whirling from some of the things Abby had said to her. She couldn’t find the time to process it all until after the weekend, after she had given her paper and made it through the conference. And after she’d had lunch with Judith.
“No. I know you don’t want to talk about that until after the conference, and that’s fine with me. OK, yes, I’m a little hurt, because I thought you felt the same way about me that I feel about you, but it’s alright. I understand you need time to think everything through. It’s just that…”
“I guess I can’t help wondering how much Judith has to do with your decision, or your not wanting to make a decision, or whatever. It must be affecting you in some way, that she’s at Northwestern now.”
Sara couldn’t think of anything to say. It was true that Judith had suddenly come back into her life after three years in ways she hadn’t anticipated. She also hadn’t anticipated the possibility of working in any other field besides teaching, but she had just been offered a job by an organization that was garnering quite a bit of media attention lately. And the job was in Chicago, where Judith now lived.
All her life Sara had wanted nothing more than to write poetry and teach English. While other children’s mothers read them the standard fare for her age group, Sara’s mother had read to her from Mallory, Chaucer and Milton, Coleridge and Keats, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, filling her child’s imagination with stories about green knights and traveling pilgrims, mystical kingdoms and magic swords, wars between heaven and hell and the simplicity of death. The way her mother pronounced each verse, pausing at just the right moments, convinced Sara that poetry was important, that it was necessary and alive, that she needed it, though she wasn’t sure why.
She would gather the neighborhood children in her basement to “play school,” teaching them how to say the alphabet backwards and forwards, how to rhyme and how not to, how to write down their dreams and turn them into poems. In school English was easily her best subject, although the teachers often sent notes home asking her mother not to help her with her papers, when in fact all her mother had done was proofread. In college, she majored in English and Education, so that she could share her love of literature and writing with other students. There had never been any question in her mind that this was her life’s calling, and it seemed perfectly natural for her to continue on to graduate school, first for a master’s in English from the University of VA and then for a Ph.D. from Syracuse University.
What she had not anticipated, however, was how bleak the job market would be for English professors in 1995. Of the twenty five other doctoral students who finshed their comps when she did, only six were offered college level teaching jobs, and only one of those had been tenure track. Sara had been offered two positions, one as an adjunct composition and comparative literature instructor at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, and one as an adjunct literature and women’s studies instructor at Rainard, a women’s college in eastern Massachussetts. She felt lucky to have been offered a job at all, and especially lucky that one of them was so close to Boston, where Abby lived. Sara didn’t know what she would have done if that job hadn’t come through, because Abby’s position as violinist in training with the Boston Symphony was too important for her to consider moving to North Carolina, or anywhere else for that matter. Sara was also excited about working for a women’s college, even though the salary for the position was barely enough to cover her basic expenses.
Sara had always been good at computers, and while she was in graduate school she easily mastered this new means of doing research that was getting all kinds of media hype — the Internet — and she had even designed a way to incorpoarate the Internet, and specifically email, into her writing courses. But Rainard didn’t even have a computer lab, much less an Internet connection, and she was appalled at how many of her students were almost completely computer illiterate. The summer after her first year of teaching classes she started her own small business, designed specifically to help young women learn more about computers and especially the Internet. She was living in Boston then, with Abby, and the business took off far beyond anything Sara had imagined. When she returned to Rainard for the fall semester, she had to hire someone to help her run the business in Boston, although it’s popularity was spreading up the North Shore. The business idea was so popular, in fact, that Sara had gained national attention for it, in a way that she might never have just for her teaching.
It was a great idea, there was no doubt about that, but Sara wasn’t sure how much she personally wanted to be involved in it. She loved teaching English and Women’s Studies, although she only got to teach two classes a semester, and that paid her less per month than she made in a week doing Internet training. And then after she was interviewed on NPR on the hot topic of “women and the Internet,” a nationally known technology consulting firm in Chicago contacted her about working with them to start a national organization to help empower women with technology. It was a fantastic opportunity, almost a once in a lifetime chance, to be involved in the development of a new technology in a way that would impact the lives of girls and women in the future. She understood the potential for this new medium, what the press called “cyberspace,” as a new frontier for battling for gender equity, and she definitely had the skills and vision necessary to make that happen. but she wasn’t sure she had the heart for it.
What would these women do once they were empowered by the technology, she wondered? Who would show them what it’s for, why it’s necessary and vital, why they should care? Who would teach them how to analyze this new medium…. There was a lot less glory in continuing to teach literature at a small, barely known women’s college in MA, and a lot less money, and Sara had to decide how much these meant to her. She had to decide if she should pursue this opportunity now and come back to teaching later, and after a very successful interview in Chicago, the decision was seeming more and more difficult. It didn’t help that Abby was committed to living in Boston for at least another two years, and it also didn’t help that Judith was now teaching at Northwestern. Judith, whom she hadn’t seen in three years. Judith, her first great love.
“Do you ever fantasize about her?”
Sara was surprised by the question. Sure she occasionally fantasized about Judith, even though she’d been with Abby for just over a year. But Judith was just that to her, a fantasy, not something she wanted to have in every day life. She would sometimes dream about rescuing Judith from a man who didn’t appreciate her, lavishing her with praises, for her work, her mind, her beauty, and making love to her in ways Michael would never be capable of, and then settling down with her in some quaint university town on the California coast. But it was just a silly, romantic dream she let run through her mind on occasion.
Sara had always been suspicious of the myth of “happily ever after,” and believed that long term monogamy did most people more harm than good. Her fantasy about settling down with Judith intrigued her because it was so removed from the realm of possibility, but she couldn’t allow herself to have the same fantasy about Abby. She realized that there was an awful lot she didn’t know about Judith, that she was projecting onto her in wishful thinking, but she knew Abby well, and loved her deeply. And that terrified her.
“You do, don’t you? I mean, it’s OK. I sometimes still fantasize about men, but it’s not like I’d ever want to be with one. Not that you don’t want to be with Judith. Or do you?”
“Do you really still think about men? I didn’t think you were ever very turned on by guys, even when you dated them?”
“That’s true, but I guess… I don’t know. Fantasies can be strange and unexpected.” For the first time in an hour Abby sat completely still.
“Abby, you forget that Judith is straight. And married for god’s sake. Michael may seem like a jerk to me, but she seems to really love him and I can only hope that there’s more to him than there appears to be. I do miss Judith’s friendship — keeping in touch by email just isn’t the same — but even in the highly unlikely event that she ever did ever come out as a lover of women, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be my type.” Out of the corner of her eye Sara could see Abby’s shoulders rising just slightly. She knew that wasn’t what Abby wanted to hear, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Funny, she seemed like just your type in your journals.” Abby’s voice had an uncharacteristically bitter edge to it, and it made Sara feel sad. “You pined after her for two whole years, and it’s not like you were pining after a figment of your imagination, either. You seemed to have known each other pretty well back then, and your love for her seemed real enough to me, judging from the way you wrote about her. Why would it be any different for you now, if you could have the chance to be with her?”
Sara was silent for a moment, trying to decide if she should regret letting Abby read her journals. She and Abby had been together for only three months when she gave Abby the notebooks, but she had wanted to reveal a part of herself that wasn’t coming through just by talking about the past. When she spoke about Judith and her life in Virginia, or about any significant time in her life, she felt vague and confused, unable to recall events and details in a way that would do justice to the intensity she felt at the time. But her journals captured those feelings, and reading them would carry her back through the years almost as though a part of her was still there.
She wanted to share that history with Abby, to show her the depths of feeling she was capable of, had once been capable of, even though she was also embarrassed by the emotional immaturity of her writing. Abby had been deeply touched by the journals, Sara remembered, even looking up with tears in her eyes as she read about the last time Sara saw Judith. She had said that she felt closer to Sara than ever before after reading them, and that she felt honored that Sara could trust her.
Remembering that now Sara wondered where that trust had gone, why she suddenly felt suspicious of Abby’s motives. What did Abby want from her and why was she suddenly so jealous of Judith? But Sara realized she knew exactly what Abby wanted from her, although she couldn’t bring herself to believe it was real. Abby couldn’t be for real, just like Judith could never come out as a lesbian, could never confess her love for Sara. She had too much invested in longing for these dreams to come true for them to actually materialize.
Her stomach suddenly felt huge and empty. She would see Judith again in less than twenty four hours, and she needed to get out of the car and stretch her legs, to be in Syracuse already. What she needed was to climb to the top of the tower at Thornden Park and lose herself in the view.