In sixth grade, the kids in Gifted and Talented went to Sandy Hook every week to look at sea life.
I was not in G&T. “Didn’t you take the test?” people asked.
I hadn’t. It seemed my window of opportunity to be either gifted or talented was gone forever.
Our teacher usually let the handful of us left behind do whatever we wanted, which sometimes meant free reading. One week, I grabbed from the dusty bookcase, The Moon By Night, by Madeleine L’Engle.
Till then I had only read Paula Danziger and Judy Blume. While I loved their books, the characters always seemed much savvier and outgoing than I could ever be. Now in Moon By Night, I met Vicky Austin, shy, awkward, and spacey – two teachers had called home about my daydreaming (maybe that’s how I missed the test?) – just like me.
After that, I devoured everything by L’Engle. Meet the Austins. A Wrinkle in Time. A Wind in the Door. One of my favorite memories is a winter Friday night, snuggling in bed with the comfort of no school the next day and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third in the Wrinkle in Time series. I thrilled over the story of Mad Dog Branzillo. Would he turn out good or bad? Would there be war or peace?
I didn’t know I was reading about chaos theory. A butterfly beating its wings in one universe could cause an earthquake in another. Charles Wallace had to give Prince Madoc the rune (by way of Gaudior, a time-traveling unicorn) to prevent the Might-Have-Been – or possible reality – of fighting between brothers, which would eventually lead to nuclear holocaust.
I wrote similar stories in Mrs. Williams’ seventh grade composition class. The survival of the universe depended on the bravery of one girl! Writing was easy, unlike algebra. I stayed up late scribbling about outer space, time travel, and unicorns. I decided then, like Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light, that I wanted to be a writer.
* * *
I’ve seen L’Engle once in person. I was going to college in New York (partly because L’Engle’s characters did) and L’Engle guest lectured for one of our religious studies classes. We never-took-a-religion-class, Vicky Austin groupies packed the room to its gills.
L’Engle perched on a desk at the front of the room in long flowy clothes, her hair in its familiar gray crop. Someone asked something about reincarnation. L’Engle smiled.
“I’ve always wanted to be reincarnated as a dolphin,” she said.
We squirmed with excitement. Dolphins! Like the ones Vicky communicates with in A Ring of Endless Light! Someone else asked about Vicky and her love interest Adam.
“What’s that?” L’Engle asked. “Adam and Eve?”
“Adam and Vicky,” the girl repeated. “Do you think they’ll get married?”
L’Engle’s smile disappeared. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said.
She was here to talk about theology, not some kids’ book, even if it was her own. But we all wanted to know: would Vicky and Adam end up together? Would she live happily ever after? Would we?
* * *
I met my husband Joe senior year. We were at some party downtown, and when I first saw him, thought he was someone I knew. Later, I wasn’t surprised when he asked me to dance.
It was easy at first. We fell in love; he was my boyfriend. He’d drop by my dorm with little gifts: chocolate, a stuffed bear, kiwis. He admired my wish to be a writer, to already know what I wanted.
Then it was difficult. His parents preferred a Korean girl. My mother just didn’t like him. He had trouble getting into law school. I saw his moods, the beginning of his anger.
But it was fate. Joe was the one; this was how it was supposed to be.
* * *
To the consternation of my parents, I still wanted to be a writer. After a short stint in publishing, I applied to MFA programs. The one in Boston gave me a free ride.
My dreams were coming true. Not only was I going to writing school, I was going for free, and in the city where Joe was in law school.
Joe wasn’t as excited. Law school was a lot of work, he said. He might not have much time for me. I turned to my classmates. But I didn’t fit in. Woefully underread in comparison – Tolstoy who? – I fell behind in conversations in bars.
“What are you all talking about?” I asked one of the guys, a beautiful and brilliant poet.
He regarded me through his thick fringe of lashes. “Babel,” he said. “Isaak Babel.”
“I know who Isaak Babel is,” I said, or at least I had heard of him. But my classmate had already turned away.
During class I was mostly silent. I still wrote by instinct, imitating the voices of my favorite authors. The piece that got me a scholarship was an Asian American tough girl version of Holden Caulfield. But I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about other people’s work. I suspected the head of the department regretted giving me the scholarship.
I’d escape into Barnes & Noble. When I wasn’t writing in the cafe, getting fat on mochas and lemon squares, I was hiding in the children’s section, reading The Giver and other YA novels. I bought Troubling a Star, the fourth in the Vicky Austin series.
“Why do you want to read that?” Joe asked.
“She’s one of my favorite authors,” I said.
He didn’t answer, derisively eying the YA sign.
I was disappointed by the book. Vicky and Adam are both in it, but rarely together. I didn’t care about Antarctica or icebergs. I wanted Vicky and Adam to frolic with dolphins again, to carefully fall in love, to save each other from the stench of death.
* * *
By May, Joe and I had broken up. The pressure from his parents to date Korean women had grown to be too much. At first, we had a hard time staying apart, but after he graduated and moved back to New York, it was easier. Then he suddenly started asking about getting back together.
I was nearly over him by then. I had a wicked crush on a co-worker I had only talked to on the phone. David had a great voice, deep and sonorous. When we weren’t talking about work, we were flirting. Having no idea what he looked like, I conjured up the ideal guy: tall, lanky, and dark-haired. Vicky’s Adam in the flesh.
The summer I finally met David was the same one Joe proposed. David had finally come to Boston, and when he walked into the office, I was sorely disappointed. He was neither tall nor lanky. He was barrel-chested gone to chunky, pale and balding.
That August, when Joe asked me to marry him, I said yes.
* * *
I continued to write. While weekends were taken up with caring for Joe’s Parkinson’s-stricken mother, I managed to work on stories and novels at my “dumbhead secretary” job (as one of my co-workers called it). I looked for an agent and entered contests. While I never won, a magazine published two of my stories.
Still, Joe wasn’t satisfied. “What are they paying you?” he asked.
Nothing, I said, like most literary magazines.
“Your job has no upward mobility,” he told me. “It’s not a career.”
“What about my writing?” Then I said what I had been suspecting: “You wish I’d give it up.”
He didn’t answer.
Without my writing, what was I? Someone who cared for a sick mother-in-law, who walked on eggshells because of her husband’s temper. Without my writing, I’d be nothing.
* * *
Of her marriage L’Engle said, “In forty years, we had something like four perfect minutes.”
This is shocking to me. The families in her books seem so perfect. Mr. and Mrs. Austin at most playfully bicker. The Murrys literally go to the ends of the earth to save each other. Love always wins in the end.
L’Engle’s husband was apparently an alcoholic who had had multiple affairs over the years. Her children supposedly hated her books and their mother’s depictions of them. Her only son, Bion, upon him Charles Wallace is based, died at 47 from complications of long-term alcoholism. She never wrote about any of it.
After A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, Charles Wallace disappeared from L’Engle’s books. In A House Like a Lotus (1984), it’s mentioned that he’s “off somewhere on some kind of secret mission.” L’Engle herself has said she doesn’t know where Charles Wallace has gone.
* * *
Four years into our marriage, Joe had an affair. Not only that: the woman was pregnant.
He begged my forgiveness but wanted to raise the child. I couldn’t forgive him but couldn’t leave either. For months, I vacillated. Stay and be reminded every day of what he had done; leave, and be alone.
I took a writing class, but couldn’t write about what was happening. I wrote about the time I spent in China, my family, a hellish cruise vacation. But where was I? everyone kept asking. Where was I in my essays?
Finally, a year after Joe’s affair, I decided to leave.
* * *
That summer I began writing about Joe and what happened. I wrote about his mother, her illness, and caring for her. I wrote about Joe’s rages, the devastation upon learning of his infidelity, the weekend his child was born. I described how I fell apart, how I tried to hurt myself to bring him home, and how even that hadn’t been enough to keep him.
Unlike L’Engle, I had to write about it all to be rid of it. But also unlike L’Engle, I was no longer in the marriage. I had no children. While married, I had convinced myself that everything was fine, or would be very soon. Once we had more money, once Joe had a better job, once his mother had a special operation – better was always just on the horizon.
* * *
In 2007, L’Engle died in a nursing home. She was 88 years old.
We’d never know if Vicky and Adam would get married, or if Charles Wallace would return from his secret mission. We’d never know about any other Might-Have-Beens.
What would have happened if I hadn’t picked up The Moon By Night? If I were at Sandy Hook looking at horse shoe crabs instead? Would I have decided in Mrs. Williams’ composition class that I wanted to be a writer? Would I have gone to college in New York? Would I have met Joe?
I’ve imagined my own Might-Have-Beens. If I hadn’t said yes when Joe asked me to dance, if he had lost my number, if I hadn’t gone to the club that night.
But I wasn’t sure I’d have gone back and undone it. I knew more now because of it. I knew who I wanted to be with and what I deserved, the difference between compromise and losing myself. Undoing my marriage would have undone all that as well.
Did L’Engle ever wonder if she shouldn’t have written her books? Might her children have felt differently about her? Perhaps she simply couldn’t help it. She was a writer; telling stories was what she did. Without it, she’d be nothing.