“I’m wearing my wedding ring,” Tom said with abandon.—anonymous
1. “I am Mr. Bish,” Tom said ambitiously.
“What’s this?” asks Marc, my boss, managing editor for the student newspaper where I’m a copy editor, flipping through my notebook.
Marc is energetic and funny, scrappy and adventurous with bright, curious eyes. I knew from the moment I met him that we would be friends. Now, I explain as he reads the list of quotations in my notebook: these are Tom Swifties, a fad that a friend and I have kicked-off in the honors program. Every day, people leave new ones on the chalkboard in our lounge. Marc’s eyes light up. He thinks we should publish these as fillers in six-point type in the newspaper.
I’ve been desperately searching for things to laugh at since my high school boyfriend Cole broke up with me a few months ago. Most of last spring I carted around books of Ogden Nash poems, cheered by verses like:
Let the lovelorn lover cure insomnia
By murmuring amor vincit omnia.
Reading William Espy’s An Almanac of Words at Play, I’d become fascinated by Tom Swifties, which evolved from the series of Tom Swift books created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate in the early twentieth century. Their writers, using the pseudonym Victor Appleton, went to great lengths to avoid repetition of the word said. Instead, characters averred, alleged, chuckled, contended, declared, professed, stated, remarked, observed, noted, rejoined, ejaculated, expostulated, groaned, and quipped. The parodies that had arisen incorporated humor into sentence construction, spoofing the author’s avoidance of said by building in puns on verbs or adverbial words or phrases, as in this recent one from Reddit: “‘Judas, please don’t kiss me. You know where this will lead to,’ Jesus said crossly.”
Such sentences cracked me up during a period when it felt like I hadn’t laughed in a very long time. Now, brainstorming Tom Swifties over lunch in the honors lounge every day with my friends, finding new ones scrawled on the chalkboard, and copying them to take to Marc over at the newspaper have become highlights of my days.
I’m a freshman who still lives at home, but Marc is eight years older than I and independent— back in school after a few years away due to illness, with his own apartment and a decent salary at the newspaper. I think of him as worldly, sophisticated. I’m flattered that he likes me so much. He’s everybody’s best friend — we can’t walk across campus without constantly being stopped by people who are eager to talk to him.
Secretly, I hope that Cole will see reason and want to get back together, but I’m happy to have this new friend to hang out with — completely platonically, I think — playing Ms. Pac-Man, Marc’s addiction, at the student union. His pockets always jingle with the quarters he saves up for free moments.
“Why isn’t she called Pac-Woman instead of Ms. Pac-Man?” I ask him. “Why does she turn around three times before she dies? It reminds me of a dog going to sleep.”
Marc laughs. “Some people just don’t think that much of women.” He gives me a meaningful look. I respect women, it says. As we leave the union, he stops to buy a pink carnation from a student organization. He presents it to me.
2. “I believe in shoveling the earth,” Tom said prodigally.
I think of myself as very deep, unreachable. Since the break-up, I’ve been numb and silent. Sometimes talking seems like too much effort. But Marc is easy to talk to, and it takes so little effort to just go along with him. Sometimes I see Cole on campus. He is polite, but distant.
I hang out a lot with Marc and his friend Kirk, who, like Marc, always makes me laugh. One day while I’m editing the honors program newsletter, Marc and Kirk offer to help me fill a white space. They print a picture of bare trees outlined against a white sky. A caption reads, “Following a nuclear blast, the imprints of vaporized freshmen make a scenic design on the east wall of Hubbard Hall.” The honors director condemns this as tasteless and insists I remove it.
Kirk is cute. He reminds me a little of Cole. But Marc has somehow claimed me, although I don’t see why I can’t be friends with both of them. Still, Kirk is always backing off, while Marc keeps making excuses to talk to me. He bets me a steak dinner that a newspaper story will print out to six-and-a-half column inches. I insist it will be six, and I win the bet. When I get off work, Marc follows me out into the shiny, drizzly dark. “I’ll call you about dinner,” he says.
I like Marc. I like working at the newspaper. I like the respect I get from other staffers because Marc likes me. But I assume we’re just friends. When he tries to kiss me after the dinner, I turn my head and he misses. Oh, I think. He like likes me.
The next day, he sends me a dozen white roses.
I start to have a recurring dream that I am pushing the same MDT command button over and over: “Delete anxiety.”
3. “I am a Communist,” Tom said readily.
Marc and I go to see 9:30 movies after he gets off work. M*A*S*H and Chariots of Fire and The Deer Hunter and Reds. I sleep through many of these, since I get up at 5:30 every morning and have trouble staying up late.
I know that Marc will never quite understand me, but maybe, I think, that’s best. We’re eating dinner in an Italian restaurant when a Bangles song starts playing. Marc says, “Oh, no, you’re not going to like this.” It’s a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Hazy Shade of Winter.” I do like it, actually, but I don’t admit it. Marc is a purist, believing that bands who perform other people’s music are by definition second-rate.
For his advanced reporting class, Marc is working on a story about a nearby convent, spending days shadowing and interviewing nuns. He tells me he is a lapsed Catholic, traumatized by a nun who thought he’d played a practical joke on her by leaving a grape on her chair. He swears he was innocent, mortified when she made him sit on a grape in front of the whole class. Though he is no longer a believer, it is touching, I think, that he still has some deep desire to understand and please the nuns.
We double-date with coworkers, attending a showing of A Clockwork Orange, a movie with rape and murder scenes that I find deeply disturbing. I am still shaken up when the lights come on. “Lighten up,” says the other copy editor. Afterward, Marc keeps humming “Singing in the Rain” under his breath and saying, “Righty right” in a bad British accent. This makes me feel unsettled and vaguely ill, but he thinks it’s funny and won’t stop.
Often I feel like the world has reversed, like I’ve become the Cole in the relationship and Marc is the Nancy. I am now the one with dark layers and inaccessible reaches. “Earth to Nancy,” Marc is always saying. Casually, he whips a bouquet of red tulips out from under his car seat and offers it to me.
4. “I took too many drugs,” Tom said odiously.
After this Tom Swiftie appears in the newspaper, the advisor nixes using these as fillers anymore. Drug references in a student newspaper are inappropriate he says. The fad in the honors lounge begins to wind down, but sometimes I still find new ones on the chalkboard when I stop by, which I am doing less often since I’m spending more time at the newspaper, and with Marc.
After late movies, Marc always wants me to come to his apartment. I do, and doze in his big brown naugahyde chair while he heats water for tea and lights candles, the smell of a scorched wooden match hanging in the air for a second before being replaced by the candle’s lavender scent. Marc squishes into the chair next to me.
“This is awfully crowded,” he says. “Maybe we should go lie down.”
“I’ll just sit on the ottoman,” I reply. Marc’s apartment is decorated in secondhand finds — a neon Budweiser sign, black and white postcards from the 20s and 30s, and funky tables originally intended for other uses — an old Victrola, an antique sewing machine case. There’s hardly anywhere to sit but lots of things to look at.
Marc pressures me a little longer, but I refuse to lie down with him. Finally he gets mad at me and storms off to take a nap, clearly hoping to guilt me into joining him.
But I sit and watch the candle burn and think about a poem I wrote in high school, comparing a softly-glowing, steadily-burning candle flame to my love for Cole. “Would you like to join the twentieth century, Nancy St. Vincent McCabe?” asked my gruff creative writing teacher, who didn’t seem to know that Edna St. Vincent Millay was an early twentieth century poet, and who had insisted I rewrite my poem and take out all the rhyme.
Recently, a mutual friend stopped me on campus to tell me that Cole’s mother has a year to live. I remember how he used to say sometimes — with a hostility I didn’t understand — “I can’t cope with her erratic moods. I wish we could just put her away.” And he’d run his hands through his hair with a fidgety guilt I’d become accustomed to. Now I’m the one who feels guilty, thinking about Cole while I’m on a date with Marc.
Marc returns to argue with me about why I won’t have sex. I refuse to give in. He finally huffs around — blowing out candles — and says, “Let’s go.” The flame I’ve been watching abruptly becomes a curling wisp of smoke. Marc pitches my coat at me. I remember how Cole always held it for me. We’d been proud when I mastered reaching my arms into the sleeves without looking.
The next day, Marc brings me a bouquet of red chrysanthemums, his apology.
5. “How will I ever eliminate this prostitute?” Tom asked horridly.
At Christmas, after we’ve been going out less than two months, Marc brings me presents: a Pac-Man balloon and a pair of Pac-Man panties. I remember longingly how, the first Christmas that Cole and I were together, he gave me a sweetheart locket carved with flowers and vines. I’ve read that it’s inappropriate for a man to give a woman lingerie unless they’re intimate, but I’m also not sure if Pac-Man panties qualify as lingerie. I stuff them into the back of a drawer. The balloon, slowly deflating until Pacman turns hollow-cheeked, emaciated, hovers there as a constant uneasy reminder that a man has given me underwear for a present.
Later, in the spring, Marc trades his old car for a new Toyota truck, and everyone in the newsroom treats it as if it’s a big surprise for me. I’m uneasy that he wants my approval about a major purchase, which seems to imply a greater entwining of our lives than I really want. And I have a sneaking suspicion that he dispensed with his car because the bucket seats inhibited makeout sessions.
Marc pressures me to help him replicate his mother’s pregnancy April fool’s joke, the way she kept planting hints that she was expecting without ever announcing it — prenatal vitamins, a crib in a box in the attic, the phone number of an obstetrician scrawled on a notepad. Word got around, and the neighbors threw her a shower. On April 1, she sent telegrams to all her kids that said, “April Fool.” The neighbors didn’t get telegrams and thought she’d had an abortion; his brother’s message somehow got lost, and so he continued to wait for news of a new baby sibling.
This story makes me uneasy, but his friends and family love it and make him tell it over and over. He wants me to cry a lot and drop a home pregnancy kit out of my purse. He wants to stage mysterious arguments and leave messages from an obstetrician in plain sight in the newsroom. He’ll slip up with a comment about me eating for two, then clap a hand over his mouth. And on April Fool’s Day, we’ll have a big laugh.
“I don’t think so,” I say. The whole idea makes me uncomfortable, as if it’s another way to trick me into having sex with him, or at least make people think that we are.
But I feel guilty about my resistance, so after we go see To Fly at the Hutchinson Cosmosphere, as we head home in the dark, still with that feeling of soaring above the earth, Marc stretches out an arm, gathering me to him to rest my head on his shoulder. “Love ya,” he whispers, his breath moist and warm against my ear. I snap awake in a turmoil of confusion and obligation.
Marc tries to persuade me to come to his place, just for a while, but I insist on going home. We argue. In my driveway, he jerks into park so abruptly that the truck leaps and shudders. I kiss his nose and he smiles grimly. “I love you,” I say before I hop out of the truck to the ground. And I do love him, on some level. He makes me laugh, he is lively and fun, and I know he’ll do anything for me.
Except wait. I try not to think about that.
The next day, a florist delivers a dozen red roses to the newsroom.
6. “I believe in action words and words which denote existence,” Tom said proverbially.
More than a year after Cole and I broke up, I still feel like I’m going through the motions every day, pretending to be a normal person instead of the withdrawn, tongue-tied girl I was when I met Marc, pretending to exist when often I feel like a shadow. I think that telling Marc that I love him will make him grateful and less demanding, but instead, our disagreements escalate. He believes that sex should automatically be part of a relationship. My belief that if you’re in love you can wait seems comparatively silly and immature. I do not admit that I am hiding behind this belief, using it as an excuse to not have to face my lack of real physical attraction to Marc, or, I think, anyone but Cole.
“Kirk and I have decided that you’re probably a tiger in bed,” Marc tells me, and I’m uncomfortable that he’s been discussing me with his friends in this way. I imagine myself with bared teeth, growling and clawing. I do not aspire to this.
“I want to marry you,” Marc starts to say regularly. He seems desperate, wanting me however he can get me, mistaking that wanting as a desire for commitment. And in those moments, I see his motives with a detachment and clarity that will soon be muddied by my growing dependency. Often I wonder: am I hurting him the way Cole hurt me?
But still I refuse sex, marriage — all of it. Until he blows up and says, “I don’t know what the point of this relationship is,” and storms out of the McDonald’s where we’ve been eating lunch. And stops calling me. Leaves the newspaper for a job editing the yearbook.
I become a staff writer for the paper, covering a speech on social security at the Governor’s Conference on Aging; a state budget cut that results in a loss of merit pay for civil service workers; and a sunrise rally sponsored by NOW the morning after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. There, everyone joins hands and sings
America, America, your daughters long to see
That all thy good is peoplehood, from sea to shining sea.
I wish I could tell Marc about this. I know it would make him laugh. I miss him, but not enough, I think. I miss the daily conversations. I miss the flowers that used to regularly appear on my desk. But that is not enough, I know.
7. “I write stories,” said Nancy novelly.
My college best friend tells me that, in grade school, she read about how fireflies mate. “The males use their lights to send signals, and then the females respond, and that’s how they find each other. I didn’t understand how each male firefly managed to find the female that was meant for him,” she says.
This captures how I’ve always thought, too: that there’s one person meant for me and that I found him when I was fourteen years old. But what do you do when the right person is no longer cooperating? My own parents didn’t marry ’til they were thirty, but they never talk about previous boyfriends or girlfriends. The story is that they met in high school, but it took them a few years to realize that they were right for each other. I’ve always pictured my dad pining away, waiting for my mother to figure it out. I’ve always assumed that neither had even looked at one another. If I can just bide my time, surely Cole will realize that we, too, are meant to be.
Marc and I haven’t talked for two weeks now, and the yearnings I sometimes feel seem disloyal to Cole — a longing to kiss Kirk, or to run off with my Spanish professor. But I can’t do either. Neither Kirk nor I would compromise our loyalty to Marc that way. My Spanish professor barely notices me, even though I’m always trying to get his attention by being a little weird, a little offbeat. Like when he asks us to describe E.T., and everyone else uses the Spanish verb ser and words like brown and short and young, and when he calls on me, I say, “Aparece una tortuga.” Later I learn that this actually means “a turtle appears,” but Sr. C. gets my meaning.
“Una tortuga?” he asks me, squinting skeptically. “Una tortuga?” He sounds way too incredulous at the idea that E.T. might look like a turtle. I want to say, “He has a long neck, squatty little head, and bulgy eyes,” but that is beyond my Spanish vocabulary. I’d like to be able to explain that E.T.’s appeal is his vulnerability, the way he resembles a turtle-like creature without any clothes or shell, without any protection at all.
I look into Sr. C.’s beautiful dark eyes and know that he will never get me.
The weeks go by. I am lonely, and I tell myself I am only attracted to these other guys because they remind me of Cole. One day, I run into Marc.
“Call me sometime,” he says.
“You’re never home,” I answer, which is true, but I realize it implies that I have been making attempts. He lights up. With those words, I have sealed my fate. The next thing I know, we’re back together.
I’m tired of resisting the direction my life seems to be pulling me. Marriage doesn’t sound so bad, the idea of having my life all settled. I imagine us going our separate ways during the day, then cooking and talking at night and reading quietly and companionably in the same room. I imagine a calm routine away from the turmoil of my current life. I imagine marriage as a refuge, like a soundproof room that will shut out all the noise in my head.
I tell Marc that I’ll marry him. He buys me a ring, three eighths of a carat that seems extravagant to me, a huge diamond set high in little brackets, flashing and sparkling as it catches the light. Too big, too high, not my style at all, but I’m touched that Marc is so eager to buy me something nice. Marc is calmer now. “I’ve decided that waiting to have sex ’til we’re married is a challenge, like getting to the fourth maze of Ms. Pac-Man,” he says.
“You know,” Kirk says, massaging my shoulders one day in the yearbook office, “I wanted to ask you out last year, but Marc got there first.” And I feel a little like territory in a land run, unavailable once Marc staked his claim. Kirk is funny, and has big hands and a big head and once when he was drunk he laid his big head on my shoulder, and I’d liked that. Now, I try to focus on the things I don’t like about Kirk so that I won’t have these thoughts.
When Sr. C. sees my ring, he says to me, “Antes de que te cases, mira lo que haces,” which idiomatically means “look before you leap.” but literally means, “Before you get married, look at what you’re doing.” Sr. C. says this to me often, and I get a little thrill. Once he even flirted with me at a Spanish class party.
But I am resigned to my fate. And Marc is so good to me. And my parents and friends seem to take our engagement as an inevitability, shrugging like they might as well not try to stop me if I’m determined to marry him anyway. I wish someone would just try. Would tell me this isn’t such a good idea.
When my mom measures me for my wedding dress, Marc says, “You’re almost perfect. 34-26-36. The perfect woman is 36-26-36.” For my birthday, he makes me a cake shaped like a word processor and gives me red roses and has a T-shirt made that says, “‘I write stories,’ said Nancy, novelly.”
All my friends start calling me Nancy Novelly.
8. “See my pup-propelled sled?” Tom said dogmatically.
I am at Marc’s mother’s house, listening to Marc say on the phone again and again, “Dad passed away tonight. An aneurism.” Nervous in the midst of crowds of mourners, I eat M&Ms out of the bowl on the TV until someone tells me that they are kept there for the dog, who does a trick in which she flips them off her nose and into her mouth.
I’m working to prove my mettle, standing by Marc during the days before and after the funeral. His mother, wearing a blouse shimmering like water in sunlight, is whipping up potato salad in her linen and silk and espadrilles, keeping busy, smoke wafting from an abandoned cigarette in a dish on the counter. The house filling with people, his mother fervently nodding her head, her whole body so that the gin in her glass rocks back and forth until I’m afraid it will slosh out. Everyone’s drunk by the end of the first night, everyone but Marc and me, and I wonder if it is better to shoot straight through the middle of suffering ’til I come out on the other end, or to blunt the edge of grief, escaping it temporarily.
I send Cole a letter, telling him I’m engaged, and he calls to congratulate me. We go out to lunch. Out of habit, I look in his eyes. I think about Marc’s eyes, intense, full of mischief and wide-open brightness. Cole’s are comparatively dark and mysterious, concealing fathoms. I smile at him and he says, “What? Why did you laugh?” But I wasn’t laughing — just falling into a habit of old familiarity. I tell him that I never meant to go out with Marc, that I actually thought Marc was gay when I first met him. Cole’s eyes flick to my face. Then he changes the subject.
My best friend and I go to dinner the next day, and I tell her about my lunch with Cole. “It sounds like you’re still in love with him,” she says. Losing my appetite, I set my crumpled napkin on the table. The wad loosens, blooming there like a white flower.
9. “You draw circles poorly,” criticized Tom roundly.
When Cole’s mother dies, I want to rush to his side like I did when Marc lost his father, but I can’t. Marc accompanies me to the funeral. We sit in the back of a sanctuary with exposed roof beams that have always made me feel like I’m in a luxurious barn. It smells more intensely of pine as rain pounds the roof, and I remember coming here with Cole, how he sat next to me, holding my hand. Today, on our way here, the wind lashed a loose telephone wire at Marc’s truck.
When people saw me without Cole, they used to ask “Where’s your other half? Where’s your shadow?”
No one ever asks me those questions when they see me without Marc.
Cole and his sister and brothers follow the casket into the church. None of them look at the crowd. People murmur sympathetically under their breaths at the sight of those four pale young people, now orphaned.
As I watch them, I think that soon I will walk down a similar aisle on my father’s arm and marry the wrong person. Unless Cole wants me back. Maybe then, things will come full circle.
Then I feel heartless. Am I really capable of going back to Cole without any regard for Marc’s feelings?
Four men roll the casket to rest next to the altar, and Cole and his siblings take their places in the front row. I strain to see him, his stiff back and bowed head. His sister slides an arm around him. The building quivers in the wind. Water swishes under tires outside and blows in under the doors, leaving puddles.
I remember studying existentialism in high school English. I decide to own the choices inside the accidents of fate that make up my life. I will choose the life that comes to me.
I will choose Marc, I think, feeling sad but noble.
After the funeral, I get into the receiving line, watching Cole accept with pained indifference handshakes, embraces, words of condolence. His sister’s face twists and she rushes away from the line. Looking startled, Cole follows her. He opens the door of the funeral parlor limo for her, then turns, scanning the crowd, his gaze never lighting on me before he ducks into the car. In a garden alongside the wall, rain and wind have beaten and crushed yellow tulips, which sprawl flatly across the ground.
10. “Whenever I race, I run off the designated path,” Tom said distractedly.
Two days after Cole’s mother’s funeral, I drive under long, thick clouds, as if someone has ploughed over the whole sky and left it in neat rows. The clouds hang down like pillows I made when I was young, unevenly stuffed with bumps in the wrong places. My heart thumps as I cross the threshold into the bookstore where Cole works to tell him what I wasn’t able to say at the funeral — that I’m sorry.
“He was transferred to Kansas City,” a clerk tells me. “He left the day after his mother died.”
Under the ravaged sky, the bulky, wind-pushed clouds, my last hopes derailed, I drive home.
The days disappear, eaten away like the dots in Ms. Pac-Man. Soon I am walking down the aisle on my dad’s arm, flashes going off in my eyes, while Marc scans the crowd, grinning. When I reach the altar, he takes my hand the way the minister has instructed him. I vow to love and honor him. I have made a point about striking the word obey, and I’ve requested that the minister not introduce us at the end of the ceremony as Mr. and Mrs. Marc, but as Marc and Nancy. I didn’t want to change my name, either, but his mother frowned absently when I said so, and that’s all it had taken for me to capitulate. Marc promises to love and honor me. He slides a gold band onto my finger, next to my engagement ring. And then comes the solo, the unity candle, the minister’s introduction.
“I now present Mr. and Mrs. Marc — ” He stops. “Marc and Nancy — ” Our guests laugh. And Marc and I scurry out of the sanctuary in an undignified recessional, laughing with relief.
As I pose for pictures with Marc, my bridesmaids, his family, and my family, my dad says, “Remember when you were a little girl and you always ran away from the camera? You were a blur in every picture I took.”
I don’t run away now, although I am surprised to see in the pictures later that I am not a blur. Because it feels like the clear lines of who I am have been smeared — like I am nebulous, formless, without definition, without borders or boundaries, twenty years old, a wife.
11. “I have no flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically.
At the end of the reception, I toss backward my bouquet of cream-colored roses and ivory calla lilies scattered with baby’s breath. The church’s basement has a low ceiling. The bouquet hits it and bounces to the floor.
We all stare at it for a startled second before I retrieve it and throw it again.
Nancy McCabe’s website: nancymccabe.net
Photography courtesy of Beth Marie