Book Excerpt: 'Foreign Affairs'

Foreign Affairs

As I walked by myself

And talked to myself,

Myself said unto me,

Look to thyself,

Take care of thyself,

For nobody cares for thee.

Old Song

On a cold blowy February day a woman is boarding the ten a.m. flight to London, followed by an invisible dog. The woman's name is Virginia Miner: she is fifty-four years old, small, plain, and unmarried—the sort of person that no one ever notices, though she is an Ivy League college professor who has published several books and has a well-established reputation in the expanding field of children's literature.

The dog that is trailing Vinnie, visible only to her imagination, is her familiar demon or demon familiar, known to her privately as Fido and representing self-pity. She visualizes him as a medium-sized dirty-white long-haired mutt, mainly Welsh terrier: sometimes trailing her silently, at other times whining and panting and nipping at her heels; when bolder, dashing round in circles trying to trip her up, or at least get her to stoop down so that he may rush at her, knock her to the ground, and cover her with sloppy kisses. Vinnie knows very well that Fido wants to get onto the plane with her, but she hopes to leave him behind, as she has successfully done on other trips abroad. Recent events, however, and the projected length of her stay, make this unlikely.

Vinnie is leaving today for six months in England on a foundation grant. There, under her professional name of V. A. Miner, she will continue her study of the folk-rhymes of schoolchildren. She has made this journey a number of times, and through a process of trial and error reduced its expense and discomfort to a minimum. She always chooses a daytime charter flight, preferring those on which no films are shown. If she could afford it, she would pay the regular fare so as to avoid boarding delays (she has already stood in various lines for nearly an hour); but that would be foolishly extravagant. Her grant is small, and she will have to watch expenses carefully as it is.

Though patience is held to be a virtue most appropriate to women, especially aging women, Vinnie has always particularly disliked waiting for anything, and never does so if it can be avoided. Now, for instance, she elbows her way deftly past less experienced passengers who are searching for their seat numbers or are encumbered with excess luggage or with children, excusing herself in a thin pleasant voice. By crossing through the galley to the far aisle and back again between two rows of seats, she outflanks a massed confusion of obvious rubes with carry-on bags labeled sun tours. In less time than it takes to read this paragraph she has made her way to a window seat near an exit in the nonsmoking section, pausing only to extract the London Times and British Vogue from a magazine rack. (Once the plane is airborne, the stewardess will distribute periodicals to all the passengers, but those Vinnie prefers may vanish before they reach her.)

Following her usual procedure, Vinnie slides into her place and unzips her boots. In stocking feet she climbs onto the seat and opens the overhead locker; since she is barely over five feet tall, this is the only way she can reach it. She removes two pillows and a loose-woven blue blanket, which she drops onto the center seat beside her handbag and her British periodicals, thus tacitly claiming this space if — as is likely in midweek and mid-February — it hasn't been assigned to anyone. Then she arranges her worn wool-lined raincoat, her floppy beige felt hat, and her amber-and-beige Liberty-print wool shawl in the locker, in such a way that only the rudest of fellow passengers will attempt to encroach upon them. She slams the locker shut with some difficulty, and sits down. She stows her boots under her own seat along with a carton of duty-free Bristol Cream sherry, and puts on a pair of folding slippers. She arranges one pillow beside her head and wedges the other between her hip and the arm of the chair. Finally she smooths her crisply cut graying hair, leans back, and with a sigh fastens the seatbelt across her tan wool sweater and skirt.

A disinterested observer, Vinnie is quite aware, might well consider these maneuvers and condemn her as self-concerned and grasping. In this culture, where energy and egotism are rewarded in the young and good-looking, plain aging women are supposed to be self-effacing, uncomplaining — to take up as little space and breathe as little air as possible. All very well, she thinks, if you travel with someone dear to you or at least familiar: someone who will help you stow away your coat, tuck a pillow behind your head, find you a newspaper — or if you choose, converse with you.

But what of those who travel alone? Why should Vinnie Miner, whose comfort has been disregarded by others for most of her adult life, disregard her own comfort? Why should she allow her coat, hat, and belongings to be crushed by the coats and hats and belongings of younger, larger, handsomer persons? Why should she sit alone for seven or eight hours, pillowless and chilled, reading an outdated copy of Punch, with her feet swollen and her pale amber eyes watering from the smoke of the cigarette fiends in the adjoining seats? As she often says to herself — though never aloud, for she knows how unpleasant it would sound—why shouldn't she look out for herself? Nobody else will.

But such internal arguments, frequent as they are with Vinnie, occupy little of her mind now. The uneven, uncharacteristically loud sigh she gave as she sank back against the scratchy blue plush was not a sigh of contentment, or even one of relief: it was an exhalation of wretchedness. Her travel routine has been performed by rote; if she were alone, she would break into wails of misery and vexation, and stain the London Times with her tears.

Twenty minutes ago, while waiting in the departure lounge in a cheerful mood, Vinnie read in a magazine of national circulation a scornful and disparaging reference to her life's work. Projects such as hers, the article stated, are a prime example of the waste of public funds, the proliferation of petty and useless scholarship, and the general weakness and folly of the humanities in America today. Do we really need a scholarly study of playground doggerel? inquired the writer, one L. D. Zimmern, a professor of English at Columbia. No doubt Mr. or Ms. Miner would answer this query by assuring us of the social, historical, or literary value of "Ring-around-a-rosy," he continued, sawing through the supports of any possible answer; but he, for one, was not convinced.

What makes this unprovoked attack especially hideous is that for over thirty years the Atlantic has been Vinnie's favorite magazine. Though she was raised in the suburbs of New York and teaches at an upstate university, her imaginative loyalties are to New England. She has often thought that American culture took a long downward step when its hegemony passed from Boston to New York in the late nineteenth century; and it has been a comfort to her that the Atlantic continues to be edited from Back Bay. When she pictures her work receiving general public recognition, it is to this magazine that she awards the honor of discovery. She has fantasized the process often: the initial letter of inquiry, the respectfully eager manner of the interviewer, the title of the finished essay; the moment when her colleagues at Corinth University and elsewhere will open the magazine and see her name printed on its glossy pages in its characteristic and elegant typeface. (Vinnie's ambition, though steady and ardent, is comparatively modest: it hasn't occurred to her that her name might be printed upon the cover of the Atlantic.) She has imagined all that will follow: the sudden delighted smiles of her friends; the graceless grins of those who are not her friends and have undervalued both her and her subject. The latter group, alas, will be much more numerous.

For the truth is that children's literature is a poor relation in her department — indeed, in most English departments: a stepdaughter grudgingly tolerated because, as in the old tales, her words are glittering jewels of a sort that attract large if not equally brilliant masses of undergraduates. Within the departmental family she sits in the chimney-corner, while her idle, ugly siblings dine at the chairman's table — though, to judge by enrollment figures, many of them must spout toads and lizards.

Well, Vinnie thinks bitterly, now she has got her wish; her work has been mentioned in the Atlantic. Just her luck — because surely there were others whose project titles might have attracted the spiteful attention of L. D. Zimmern. But of course it was she he chose, what else could she expect? Vinnie realizes that Fido has followed her onto the plane and is snuffling at her legs, but she lacks the energy to push him away.

Above her seat the warning light has been turned on; the engines begin to vibrate as if with her own internal tremor. Vinnie stares through the streaked, distorting oblong of glass at gray tarmac, pitted heaps of dirty congealed snow, other planes taxiing toward takeoff; but what she sees is a crowd of Atlantic magazines queuing for departure or already en route, singly or in squadrons, flying over the United States in the hands and briefcases of travelers, hitching their way in automobiles, loaded onto trucks and trains, bundled and tied for sale on newsstands. She visualizes what must come or has already come of this mass migration: she sees, all over the country — in homes and offices, in libraries and dentists' waiting rooms — her colleagues, ex-colleagues, students, ex-students, neighbors, ex-neighbors, friends, and ex-friends (not to mention the members of the Foundation Grants Committee). All of them, at this moment or some other moment, are opening the Atlantic, turning its glossy white pages, coming upon that awful paragraph. She imagines which ones will laugh aloud; which will read the sentences out with a sneering smile; which will gasp with sympathy; and which will groan, thinking or saying how bad it looks for the Department or for the Foundation. "Hard on Vinnie," one will remark. "But you have to admit there's something a little comic about the title of her proposal: ‘A comparative investigation of the play-rhymes of British and American Children' — well now, really."

About its title, perhaps; not about its content, as she has spent years proving. Trivial as it may seem, her material is rich in meaning. For example — Vinnie, almost involuntarily, begins composing in her head a letter to the editor of the Atlantic — consider the verse to which Professor Zimmern took such particular exception:

Ring around a rosy

Pocketful of posies.

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down.

— This rhyme appears from internal as well as external evidence to date very possibly from the Great Plague of 1665. If so, the "posies" may be the nosegays of flowers and herbs carried by citizens of London to ward off infection, while "Ashes, ashes," perhaps refers to the burning of dead bodies that littered the streets.

— If Professor Zimmern had troubled to do his research… if he had merely taken the time to inquire of any authority in the field — Vinnie continues her imaginary letter — he… he would be alive today. Unbidden, these words appear in her mind to complete the sentence. She sees L. D. Zimmern, whom she has never met but imagines (inaccurately) to be fat and bald, as a plague-swollen, discolored corpse. He is lying on the cobblestones of a seventeenth- century London alley, his clothes foully stained with vomit, his face blackened and contorted, his limbs hideously askew in the death agony, his faded posy of herbs wilting beside him.

— Many more of these apparently "meaningless" verses, she resumes, a little shocked by her own imagination, have similar hidden historical and social referents, and preserve in oral form…

While the stewardess, in a strained BBC accent, begins her rote exhortation, Vinnie continues her letter to the editor. Phrases she has used many times in lectures and articles repeat themselves within her head, interspersed with those coming over the loudspeakers. "Children's game-rhymes/Place the life vest over your head/oldest universal literature/Bring the straps to the front and fasten them securely/ representing for millions of people their earliest and often their only exposure to/Pulling on the cord will cause the vest to become inflated with air." Inflated with air, indeed. As she knows from bitter experience, nothing is ever gained by sending such letters. Either they are blandly refused ("We regret that our limited space prevents… ") or, worse, they are accepted and printed weeks or months later, reminding everyone of your discomfiture long after they had forgotten about it, and making you seem a sore loser.

Not only mustn't she write to the Atlantic: she must take care never to mention its attack on her to anyone, friend or foe. In academic life it is considered weak and undignified to complain of your reviews. Indeed, in Vinnie's experience, the only afflictions it is really safe to mention are those shared by all your colleagues: the weather, inflation, delinquent students, and so forth. Bad publicity must be dealt with as Vinnie was once taught by her mother to deal with flaws in her adolescent appearance: in total silence. "If you have a spot on your face or your dress, Vinnie, for goodness' sake don't mention it. At best you'll be reminding people of something unpleasant about yourself; at worst you'll call it to the attention of those who might never have noticed." Yes; no doubt a very sensible policy. Its only disadvantage is that Vinnie will never know who has noticed this new ugly spot and who hasn't. Never, never know. Fido, who has been standing with his forepaws on her knees, whining hopefully, now scrambles into her lap.

The rackety roar of the engines increases; the plane begins to trundle down the runway, gathering speed. At what seems the last possible moment it lurches unevenly upward, causing the usual shudder in Vinnie's bowels and the sensation of having been struck on the back of the neck with the seat-cushion. She swallows with difficulty and glances toward the window, where a frozen gray section of Long Island suburb is wheeling by at an unnatural angle. She feels queasy, disoriented, damaged. And no wonder, whines Fido: this public sneer will be in her life forever, part of her shabby history of losses and failures.

Vinnie knows, of course, that she ought not to take it so hard. But she knows too that those who have no significant identity outside their careers — no spouse, no lover, no parents, no children — do take such things hard. In the brief distant time when she was married, professional reverses did not damage the core of her life; they could not disrupt the comfort (or, later, the discomfort) of what went on at home. They were, so to speak, outside the plane, muffled by social insulation and the hum of the marital engines. Now these blows fall on her directly, as if the heavy oblong of glass had been removed so that Vinnie could be slapped full in the face with the Atlantic — not the magazine, but a cold half-congealed sopping-wet arm of the ocean after which it is named, over which they are passing; slapped again and again and —

"Excuse me." It is a real voice that Vinnie now hears, the voice of the passenger in the aisle seat: a bulky, balding man in a tan Western-cut suit and rawhide tie.

"Yes?"

"I just said, mind if I take a look at your newspaper?"

Though Vinnie does mind, she is constrained by convention from saying so. "Not at all."

"Thanks."

She acknowledges the man's grin with the faintest possible nod; then, to protect herself from his conversation and her own thoughts, picks up Vogue. Listlessly she turns its shiny pages, stopping at an article on winter soups and again at one on indoor gardening. The references to marrowbones, parsnips, and partridges, to Christmas roses and ivy, the erudite yet cosily confiding style—so different from the hysterical exhortation of American fashion magazines—make her smile as if recognizing an old friend. The pieces on clothes and beauty, on the other hand, she passes over rapidly. She has now no use for, and has never derived any benefit from, their advice.

For nearly forty years Vinnie has suffered from the peculiar disadvantages of the woman born without physical charms. Even as a child she had a nondescript sort of face, which gave the impression of a small wild rodent: the nose sharp and narrow, the eyes round and rather too close-set, the mouth a nibbling slit. For the first eleven years of her life, however, her looks gave no one any concern. But as she approached puberty, first her suddenly anxious mother and then Vinnie herself attempted to improve upon her naturally meager endowments. Faithfully, they followed the changing recommendations of acquaintances and of the media, but never with any success. The ringlets and ruffles popular in Vinnie's late childhood did not become her; the austerely cut, square-shouldered clothes of World War II emphasized her adolescent scrawniness; the New Look drowned her in excess yardage, and so on through every subsequent change of fashion. Indeed, it would be kinder to draw a veil over some of Vinnie's later attempts at stylishness: her bony forty-year-old legs in an orange leather miniskirt; her narrow mouse's face peering from behind teased hair and an oversized pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses.

When she reached fifty, however, Vinnie began to abandon these strenuous efforts. She ceased tinting her hair a juvenile and unnatural shade of auburn and let it grow out its natural piebald gray-beige; she gave away half her clothes and threw out most of her makeup. She might as well face facts, she told herself: she was a disadvantaged woman, doubly disadvantaged now by age; someone men would not charge at with bullish enthusiasm no matter how many brightly colored objects she waved to attract their attention. Well, at least she could avoid being a figure of fun. If she couldn't look like an attractive woman, she could at least look like a lady.

But just as she was resigning herself to total defeat, the odds began to alter in Vinnie's favor. Within the last couple of years she has in a sense caught up with, even passed, some of her better-equipped contemporaries. The comparison of her appearance to that of other women of her age is no longer a constant source of mortification. She is no better looking than she ever was, but they have lost more ground. Her slim, modestly proportioned figure has not been made bulgy and flabby by childbearing or by overeating and overdieting; her small but rather nice breasts (creamy, pink-tipped) have not fallen. Her features have not taken on the injured, strained expression of the former beauty, nor does she paint and decorate or simper and coo in a desperate attempt to arouse the male interest she feels to be her due. She is not consumed with rage and grief at the cessation of attentions that were in any case moderate, undependable, and intermittent.

As a result men — even men she has been intimate with — do not now gaze upon her with dismay, as upon a beloved landscape devastated by fire, flood, or urban development. They do not mind that Vinnie Miner, who was never much to look at, now looks old. After all, they hadn't slept with her out of romantic passion, but out of comradeship and temporary mutual need — often almost absent-mindedly, to relieve the pressure of their desire for some more glamorous female. It wasn't uncommon for a man who had just made love to Vinnie to sit up naked in bed, light a cigarette, and relate to her the vicissitudes of his current romance with some temperamental beauty — breaking off occasionally to say how great it was to have a pal like her.

Some may be surprised to learn that there is this side to Professor Miner's life. But it is a mistake to believe that plain women are more or less celibate. The error is common, since in the popular mind — and especially in the media — the idea of sex is linked with the idea of beauty. Partly as a result, men are not eager to boast of their liaisons with unattractive women, or to display such liaisons in public. As for the women, painful experience and a natural sense of self-preservation often keep them from publicizing these relationships, in which they seldom have the status of a declared lover, though often that of a good friend.

As has sometimes been remarked, almost any woman can find a man to sleep with if she sets her standards low enough. But what must be lowered are not necessarily standards of character, intelligence, sexual energy, good looks, and worldly achievement. Rather, far more often, she must relax her requirements for commitment, constancy, and romantic passion; she must cease to hope for declarations of love, admiring stares, witty telegrams, eloquent letters, birthday cards, valentines, candy, and flowers. No; plain women often have a sex life. What they lack, rather, is a love life.

Vinnie has now reached an article in Vogue devoted to new ideas for children's birthday parties, which arouses her professional dismay because of its emphasis on adult-directed commercial entertainment: the hiring of professional magicians and clowns, the organization of sightseeing trips, etc. — just the sort of thing that is tending more and more to replace the traditional rituals and games. Partly as a result of such articles, the ancient and precious folk culture of childhood is rapidly being destroyed. Meanwhile, those who hope to record and preserve this vanishing heritage are sneered at, denigrated, slandered in popular magazines. Woof, woof.

"Here's your paper." Vinnie's seatmate holds out the London Times, clumsily refolded.

"Oh. Thank you." To avoid further requests for it from other passengers, she places the newspaper in her lap beneath Vogue.

"Thank you. Not much in it."

Since this is not phrased as a question, Vinnie is not obliged to respond, and does not. Not much of what? she wonders. Perhaps of American news, sports events, middlebrow comment, or even advertisements, in comparison to whatever paper he habitually reads. Or perhaps, being used to screaming headlines and exclamatory one-sentence paragraphs, he has been misled by the typographical and stylistic restraint of the Times into thinking that nothing of importance occurred in the world yesterday. And perhaps nothing has, though to her, to V. A. Miner, arf, arf, awooo! Stop that, Fido.

Setting aside Vogue, she unfolds the newspaper. Gradually, the leisurely Times style, with its air of measured consideration and its undertone of educated irony, begins to calm her, as the voice of an English nanny might quiet a hurt, overwrought child.

"You on your way to London?"

"What? Yes." Caught as it were in the act, she admits her destination, and returns her glance to the story Nanny is telling her about Prince Charles.

"Glad to get out of that New York weather, I bet."

Again Vinnie agrees, but in such a way as to make it clear that she does not choose to converse. She shifts her body and the tissuey sheets of the paper toward the window, though nothing can be seen there. The plane seems to stand still, shuddering with a monotonous regularity, while ragged gray billows of cloud churn past.

However long the flight, Vinnie always tries to avoid striking up acquaintance with anyone, especially on transatlantic journeys. According to her calculations, there is far more chance of having to listen to some bore for seven-and-a-half hours than of meeting someone interesting—and after all, whom even among her friends would she want to converse with for so long?

Besides, this man looks like someone Vinnie would hardly want to converse with for seven-and-a-half minutes. His dress and speech proclaim him to be, probably, a Southern Plains States businessman of no particular education or distinction; the sort of person who goes on package tours to Europe. And indeed the carry-on bag that rests between his oversize Western-style leather boots is pasted with the same sun tours logo she had noticed earlier: fat comic-book letters enclosing a grinning Disney sun. Physically too he is of a type she has never cared for: big, ruddy, blunt-featured, with cropped coarse graying red hair. Some women would consider him attractive in a weather-beaten Western way; but Vinnie has always preferred in men an elegant slimness, fair fine hair and skin, small well-cut features — the sort of looks that are an idealized male version of her own.

Excerpted from Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie. Copyright 2006 by Alison Lurie. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, 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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