Below is another draft selection from a longer-form fictional piece I have been working on called Maiden’s Choosing, the title of which is plucked directly from volume II of George Eliot’s 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. (You can read other draft chapters here, here, and here.)
I had known about Powell before I’d met him in the way all girls know about good-looking boys before they are officially introduced, via information pocketed nonchalantly in the course of overheard conversations or asked discreetly of a girlfriend or sleuthed out by virtue of context clues, like the faded fraternity shirt I noticed him wearing one morning when we crossed paths on the Lawn at UVA.
“Who is that?” I had whispered, finally, to my friend Charlotte.
“Oh, that is Powell Early,” she replied as we crossed Rugby Road toward Newcomb Hall. “Third year. Comm school. His parents, like, own Virginia or something.”
But it wasn’t until we snuck into a progressive party at his fraternity that we met. Charlotte and I had barreled into his room at the end of a narrow hall on the first floor where he was sullenly supervising the pouring of Wild Turkey Rare Breed shots by a pledge. I declined, instead swirling a red solo cup of “jungle juice” I’d acquired in the previous room and, brazen with grain alcohol, fanned my way through his room. I couldn’t have known then that this party was a kind of hell for him. He was private, and tidy, and preferred to be alone, and most of the time, he drove to his parents’ home in Middleburg when revelries were afoot. He hung back, his arm propped up against a bookcase, looking affable but uninterested, his posture — as always, I would learn — unflappably casual. I would later reject the idea that he’d ever endured hazing at the fraternity, indignities incompatible with his laidback self-composure. I would imagine instead the shrugging way he’d toss his head back and laugh, his eyes twinkling, and then excuse himself to go fishing, a pastime I would later indulge by way of spending countless Saturday afternoons perched on a rock watching him cast an old bamboo rod he’d inherited from his father into Moorman’s River in search of brook trout.
But I didn’t know that then, and I mistook his air of distraction for disinterest in me. Still, I needled him over the course of five or six minutes by commenting on the decor in his well-kept fraternity room, remarking on the bedding (a dismissive “my mom picked it out”), the Aerosmith CDs (a polite smile), the photograph of two curly-coated dogs (“Lagotto Romagnolos — my dad’s pride and joy”). And then I pulled out a collection of J.D. Salinger short stories from his bookcase and, still desperate to distinguish myself, offered: “I love a line from this book — ‘She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except holding the universe together.'” And he shifted weight and tilted his head, his hazel eyes focusing.
“That’s crazy,” he said. “I mean, really. Crazy.” It was the first time I noticed the slight Virginia elongation of his vowels, the time he took letting the words tumble out. “That’s the only line I have highlighted in the whole book.”
The only lahhn, he’d said. Hah-lah–tid. Bewk.
Lahhn, bewk — stretched out, relaxed, like him. A Virginia boy, a Virginia voice. I watched the muscles of his tanned forearms move as he flipped to the right page, then his fingers — nails trimmed and scrubbed clean — shifted to hold the page in place for me. He studied my face, and I had to bite my lip as a shiver passed through me.
We retrained our gazes on the madness happening at his desk, a vignette of slamming fists and crumpled cups, and I pretended to watch but could only think of the weight of his presence at my elbow, the way his oxford stretched against his shoulder blades, the breadth of his back as he leaned his hips against the footboard of his bed, the soap on his skin, the boyish curl at the nape of his neck, the way he held his cup at his side between his thumb and ring finger — so cavalier, so capable — all how, I imagined, a man twice his age might hold his drink, might comport himself, might stand in the face of the juvenile.
I would take the Salinger coincidence, as I would take the discovery that he was nearly always at his parents’ on Saturday evenings and that I just so happened to weasel my way into his fraternity progressive on a singular night he chose to stay put, as divine pre-ordination.
Meant to be I would later write in small arial font on my AIM profile.
Meant to be I would tell him when he pulled me into his arms as we looked up at the Appalachian sky at a sorority bonfire, me in his faded Virginia sweatshirt, the air cool and damp around us, and my life legible and simple.
Meant to be I would inscribe in the interior of his wedding band.
Meant to be I would tell him when he laid in the hospital bed when we were old and gray-haired even though we had occasionally discarded the notion of predestination as a result of the many hard knocks of living a very full life.
But we talked, then, that warm May night in Charlottesville, for the better part of twenty minutes, and at some point, I plucked a small placard bearing his name in block print font right up off his desk. He was a student of the Comm School — the equivalent of a “pre-MBA” program — and those of us in the Humanities scoffed at their light work-load and their unearned sense of superiority and the nerdy way they carried those white placards around grounds from class to class. We had no ammo, of course, being generally eggheaded and more socially awkward than they were, often spending afternoons emoting around Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. I loved my classes, and I loved the seriousness with which my classmates took them, but I routinely cringed at the lack of social awareness within my program: a cluster of classmates had snickered over my misidentification of Derrida and a beanpole of a third-year had created a villanelle honoring Freud that he had chanted in front of the entire class one afternoon, uninvited and over-eager. In short, we had no reasonable grounds to poke fun at these white placards our Comm school classmates carried with solemnity around Grounds, but I tucked Powell’s under my arm and laughed, and I don’t know why, but he laughed, too, and something passed between us.
I knew then that he might be interested in me, and — with the illogic capable only of an 18-year-old — flung myself headlong into conversation with his fraternity brother, George, whom I knew from an advanced History class I happened to be taking. I was feigning insouciance. I could feel Powell watch me from time to time, and I would glow with self-awareness and laugh too loud. The hour grew late and my solo cup had long since been drained and Charlotte had met up with two of my other girlfriends. I found myself sitting on the back porch of the fraternity house, my feet dangling over the edge of splintering, white floorboards, while George sent a pledge on an errand:
“Put on Moondance.”
And the frat house, lit orange from the inside out, filled with Van Morrison’s pure and bitter voice, which tumbled out into the thick and still of a late May evening in Charlottesville. The music was so loud I could feel it reverberate through my spine as I swung my bare feet back and forth over the edge of that porch, just a few inches above unkempt green grass and cricketsong. And Powell? I wondered, glancing around the room.
“I gotta take a leak,” said George, and I was too relieved by his exit to take issue with his indecent turn of phrase, having suddenly started to worry about the late hour — going on 1 o’clock in the morning — and the increasing desertion of partygoers around us, defecting to bars and bed. Wordlessly, I jumped down and disappeared into the the thicket of hedges and then wound my way up the side of the house back toward the semicircular greensward that separated Powell’s frat house from two other fraternities and the pathway back to my dorm. I was still clutching Powell’s name placard under my arm, and the intimacy of the theft thrilled me. I glanced back at the house and saw Powell standing in the doorway, his shoulder leaning against the door jamb, a dark figure against the lit interior. I knew he must have seen the placard under my arm, and I knew he could have easily run me down for it, but he just smiled and made a funny little salute, and I laughed into the air and ran home.