Ed note: Below is a draft chapter from a longer form fictional piece I am writing called Maiden’s Choosing, the title of which is plucked directly from volume II of George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. I will likely be eventually releasing the rest of this work as an e-book available for purchase, but will share a couple of other excerpts here, too.
Cheers to a total escape from 2020.
I wrote long, detailed emails to Violet in those days, accounting for all the interactions and minutiae in my narrow world at the time, right down to the small curl of hair at the nape of Powell’s neck. I would return from a date, or sit down to my desk after class, and write. If she minded the self-indulgent journaling, I could not tell. Instead, she resurfaced the bric-a-brac of my life as a second-year at the University of Virginia in the fabric of her harried and poorly punctuated replies:
CARO! Off to meet up with Lele for drinks at her parent’s club, can you imagine she is already a member, paying dues and everything? She has a locker with her name engraved on it and writes her number on the chits at the snack shop and everything. OF COURSE she does, is there anything she has ever had to do but memorize numbers to write on chits? HA. I am bringing Tristan with me. He was wearing an ascot to dinner the other day. Look it up online. His father flies “private only” — oh GOD. But he also brought me a bag of red swedish fish and he literally spent twenty minutes trying to find me by the tennis courts. I like to read there and get a little sun — I love a little burnt nose or some freckles on my cheeks, just from being out too long too busy, never a tanning salon (!!!) — and sometimes watch people play and none of them are as good as we are. OK, you go and enjoy him PUTTING THE RUSTED SEATBELT OVER YOUR LAP FOR YOU, OK MISS?! And the curl on the neck too, kiss kiss kiss there —
I would pour myself into bed after a late night studying in Clemons Library, but not before checking my emails, and there was always one from Violet, even if just a
AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT —
Love to you, eating the swedish fish in bed.
We sustained an intense epistolarity for most of college. We occupied one another’s minds so fully that I would occasionally forget when things had happened to her instead of myself and would often startle at an offhanded reference in her rambling replies to Powell’s bamboo fly fishing rod (how could she remember that it was bamboo?) and the fact that he kept his tee-shirts folded neatly in thirds in the second drawer of his dresser and the attractive way he rested his right hand on the gear shift of his Jeep while driving and clipped my seat belt in for me because the clasp was rusted over and finicky. In return, I pried into her tales of the besottedness of her many suitors, living vicariously through the enchanting and foreign way in which she skittered through her love life, running breathlessly and coquettishly and never truly letting any of them in. I could just see the delicate bones of her pretty face arranged into a coy smile, could imagine the way she’d tiptoed down the all-boys hall in the middle of the night, her bare feet wet with dew, all giggles and moonlight and inconsequence, while I lumbered through the pangs and heart swells of my first serious relationship with a sandy-haired, hazel-eyed Virginia boy who read J.D. Salinger and passed most of his Saturday mornings fishing for brook trout and occasionally left me notes on thick white stationery engraved with his name on the top in block-lettered forest green:
“There’s a mayfly hatch on Moorman’s River — back by six, then let me take my girl to dinner. -P.E.”
I kept those notes in a shoebox, and I turned their words over in my mind for weeks at a time: “my girl,” he’d called me. And so while Violet was frolicking, I was heavy in love.
I leaned on the constancy of Violet’s emails in my inbox in particular the autumn of my second year of college. I had been dating Powell since May, and had taken to manufacturing pathetic dramas in the way of a nineteen-year-old girl. I didn’t like that he went home to Middleburg most Saturday nights, willfully avoiding the crowds and parties of the UVA fraternity scene despite being an initiated brother in one of its most-vied-for houses.
“It’s just weird,” I spat out one afternoon after multiple failed attempts at convincing him to stay. He paused and look at me with raised eyebrows and then continued to toss items into a weathered leather weekend bag on his bed. What I meant to say was: “I love you.” What I should have said was: “I am proud we belong to each other and I want to show you off.” What I had longed to express was the frothy and untroubled glee of being nineteen and in love and untrammeled by responsibility, and the equivalent desire to not let anything — not even the unintentional philistinism of my boyfriend — get in the way of my indulgence in it. But when he leaned in to kiss me goodbye, I gave him my cheek.
“Alrighty then,” he said, and he jumped into his red Wrangler with the rusted-over seatbelts and drove off without another word.
I know that I should be letting him do his own thing, I wrote to Violet, but I can’t shake this feeling that I’m only this small slice of his life when he drives home on Saturday nights. I’m an inferior part of his world that he can put on a shelf whenever he wants. And meanwhile, I’m up all night crying over not giving him a kiss back. He’s my everything, my too much, and I’m just a little part of him. –Caroline
At midnight that night, I awoke to my name —
— and muted thuds against the side of my bedroom wall. At the time, I lived on the second floor of an old tear-down house on Gordon Street with eight other housemates. I walked to the window and there he was, bathed in moonlight in the little overgrown backyard, throwing rocks at my window. He held up his arms in a dramatic shrug that I have never forgotten, not after three babies and the deaths of loved ones and our sixty-five years of marriage together. When I think of Powell, I think of him there, luminescent with youth and promise, waiting for me in the garden in spite of his rightful frustration with my girlish inanities.
“For Chrissakes, Caroline,” he called up softly to me, and I knew what his faux-exasperation meant. He had driven from Middleburg back to Charlottesville in the middle of the night for me, and I had slept through his calls, and, as he told me after I ran barefoot down the creaky steps and out the swinging screen door and into the chill of the fall air, the dew on the grass freezing my toes through my socks while he put one hand on each of my cheeks: “Goddamn it, Caroline, you drive me crazy.” But his voice was tender, and I knew the mild blasphemies were performative, and the Appalachian stars above us were in his eyes.
That fall, I also contrived a jealousy-inspired contretemps with a girl named Sumner with whom Powell would occasionally cross paths. She was “old Virginia” in a way I would never be, and life spread out before her with a kind of smooth graciousness: a drink always materializing in her manicured hands, multiple bids from the best sororities (she went Pi Phi), current-season designer handbags, tanned limbs in January that meant she’d spent winter break somewhere tropical, the affection of what felt like the entire school, and all the rest of it. Even ungainly frat boys like George Mitchum straightened up and deferred to her presence. I had watched him tuck his shirt in and nod affably when she appeared in the door frame of Kappa Sig one Saturday evening, her peaches-and-cream complexion lit up with a smile, her hair thrown into a side ponytail that suggested she could hang. What was worse was that she seemed kind, and not in the genteel way I so often saw among women cut from a similar cloth. I’d one day watched her squat down beside a tall, athletic-looking boy who was throwing up in the grass in front of Monroe Hill House while on my way to Newcomb Hall. She’d flown over to him, reflexively: “Are you OK?” He had mumbled something about being a student athlete and having a concussion and she had squeezed his hand and said, “Don’t you worry, we’re going to get you to the hospital and get this whole thing sorted out.” I’d known then, by the way she seemed entirely unaware of my presence and wholly absorbed in his, that she was a good kind of girl, and that was precisely why she couldn’t be trusted with Powell.
And so I didn’t care for the mild reverence with which he referred to her, and I flat out hated the time I caught him making his pouty face — the face I had thought was reserved for me alone — to her while on the back patio of his fraternity house one Saturday afternoon in October. It was before a football game, and I turned the corner and was knee-buckled by my own envy. I was holding a cup of beer in one hand and before I could stop myself, I hurled it at the wall and it splattered all over the room, including onto Sumner’s blue and white striped sundress and she flicked her wrists and swiped at her skirt in dismay. Powell looked at me in confusion, and a few of his frat brothers laughed. I ran.
He did not come after me. He did not call, either. I must have checked his AIM handle twenty times that evening but he did not come online. I waited for his footfall on the stairs, for his knock at my door.
I’ve ruined everything, I wrote to Violet. But he shouldn’t be looking at that Sumner Princess that way.
And even though I left the pejorative “princess” in the email, I knew I was wrong and petty, and I knew Violet would know that, too, and I hated myself for it.
At around nine the next morning, my housemate Corey knocked on my door. “Girl, your man is outside,” she said, holding a bowl of granola. I walked downstairs, unable to decide whether to throw myself at him or persist in my charade of righteousness. I opened the screen door and he was standing at the foot of the patio steps.
“Come in?” I asked, still undecided on my own affect.
“Too pissed to come in,” he said. And then he looked down and kicked at the ground with his foot in a gesture so boyish I couldn’t help but break. I ran down the steps and put my arms around him.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. He didn’t hug me back, just shifted feet and clenched and unclenched his jaw.
“You embarrassed me,” he said. “More than that. I can’t be with somebody who doesn’t trust me.” I felt the floor drop out beneath me. I had anticipated a scolding. I had not foreseen an ending.
But we did not end that morning. We made up in a warm pool of tears and before I crawled into bed at 11 p.m. that night, my eyes puffy and my throat hoarse, I wrote to Violet:
I’m done with the drama. It’s enough to have a good man.
That spirit did not persist. Just over a month later, on December 10th, we broke up. He had gotten into Harvard Business School two days earlier and I had succeeded that fall in convincing multiple administrative staff and professors that I “needed” to complete my study abroad program that ensuing spring, though it was uncommon for second-years to do so. I had pitched a project studying the history of flanerie and the rise of dandyism in Paris after completing an advanced seminar on Fin de Siecle literature in the spring of my first year at UVA. I had been the only first-year in the class, and I had reveled in my own intellectual snobbery over the achievement. I had then parlayed that high into a campaign to study abroad earlier than most of my peers, and with a fancy academic programme I’d designed myself to boot. I had known, as I’d filed the paperwork and plead my case, that I was also asserting my own independence from Powell. We’d not talked about the fact that if I succeeded in my initiative, we would not spend the spring semester together — and it would be his final semester at UVA, as he was graduating that May. I had swanned around in faux ignorance of this fact for months, believing the absence of articulated concern made me interesting, and intellectually driven, and self-reliant. Powell said nothing about it, but he kept his cards to his chest in most matters and so this did not surprise me.
It was only when he took my hand in the pavilion garden where we had first started to fall in love eight months earlier that I knew the end was near.
“Baby,” he said, his pet name for me at the time, and I swooned over the way it sounded in his mouth. He squeezed my hand. “I think we should take a break.”
I didn’t say anything. The garden swum around me.
“You’re studying abroad, and I’m going off to business school this fall, and — I just don’t want to hold you back. I don’t want you moping around museums and calling me from sketchy internet cafes. I want you living while you’re there.”
I didn’t say anything. I carefully pried my fingers from his hand, and it felt to me like my fingers belonged to somebody else, as did my legs, which slowly led me halfway across the garden without my willing them to do so.
I turned around once, and I wanted to say something hurtful, something about his horrifically patronizing tone, but all I could see was his pained expression and the way he’d sprung to his feet as I’d walked from him, and instead I let out a gulping cry and covered my face with my hands. He came to me, but I turned then and fled, running out of the pavilion, across the Lawn, all the way down Rugby Road, and it was forty degrees outside and my lungs hurt from the cold, and I ran into my housemate’s bedroom and said:
“Corey, I need to borrow your car,” and I was hysterically crying by that point. I could only think of Powell shrugging in the moonlight, and the way “baby” sounded in his mouth — quiet and unhurried and with the slightest Virginia drag on the “a,” and the way we spent most Saturday mornings on Moorman River in a companionable silence while he fished and I read, and the slow smile on his face when he was being flirty.
Her face drained and she handed me her keys and I got into the car and drove straight home to D.C., weeping over the wheel the entire way.
I didn’t talk to Powell again for four years. I longed to speak to him — in fact, longed for him to just see me somewhere, to register my carefully curated and entirely performed disinterest in him — but I knew that a clean break was better, and I was bristling with haughty anger besides. I’d had to return to Grounds that December to take my final examinations, but I planned my movements with the specificity and caution of a military maneuver, deftly recalling his daily patterns and likely whereabouts such that there was no chance we would cross paths. I took no risks, leaving for Christmas break and in turn my semester abroad directly from my last exam on a snowy Friday afternoon, jumping into my parents’ SUV, which I’d pre-loaded with all my belongings, and escaping north on 29.
The night prior, as I’d emptied my second-floor bedroom in the ramshackle house on Gordon Street (monthly rent: $212), I had torn all of the photos of Powell and myself in dramatic and satisfying rips and let the scraps flutter into a large black trash bag on the floor. I even tossed the spare key to his bedroom into the garbage bag. I can’t be bothered to return that, I sniffed, though I couldn’t quite hush the pang of guilt I felt knowing that he would be fined — or worse — by his fraternity for its absence at the end of the year. And, though I tried, I could not prevent myself from fishing out the faded gray t-shirt that read THE ALBEMARLE ANGLER from the trash bag I’d dropped it into. It still smelled like him — soap and laundry — and I could almost see the broad frame of his shoulders in it. He’d clipped out the tag, evidence of the childish intolerance for scratchiness I’d once teased him about, but written in black Sharpie in its lieu: NO MAN IS BORN AN ANGLER. And then beneath it: P.E. — UVA ’04. It was perfectly him, and I hated him perfectly for it, and yet I slept in it that night and then tucked it into my lingerie bag the next morning and refused to permit myself to write about it in my morning missive to Violet, an omission that bewildered me. I felt, for the first time in a long time, alone and unto myself, huddled around the secret of the cosseted Albemarle Angler t-shirt, and I was both scared and exhilarated by my own independence.
On January 6th of that winter, I boarded a plane to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and I wrote a letter to Violet on the small, textured tray table in front of me:
“This is the beginning of the new me. Au revoir, Future Mrs. Powell Early. Bonjour, Caroline.”
Post-Scripts: The Most Popular Items on Le Blog in 2020.
1 // THE DIGBY TABLE LAMP
4 // A LIFE-CHANGING HAIR BRUSH (NO REALLY — IT WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT BRUSHING YOUR HAIR)
9 // MY FAVORITE BRA
10 // FANTASTIC EVERYDAY BOOTIE (NOW ON SALE!!!)
P.S. This chapter is the first bit of fiction I’ve ever published, but if you want more of my long-form, memoir-ish writing, check out my remembrances of studying abroad in Lyon, Partie Une and Partie Deux, or my M Series.