Sitting opposite my daughter in a luncheonette after finally meeting the surly guy she'd begun living with, I made a little sigh in praise of coffee. As long as we could drink coffee together all
was not lost.
She looked at me and smiled, a little warily. "It was nice that you came up, Mom, I know you're busy. You really don't have to worry about me though, you know." She tossed her head as if to shake off such concern; her hair, just washed, glistened with the sunlight coming through the windows, the bright light highlighting a thousand curls. When she was little, those incorrigible curls would frolic as she danced around the living room or demonstrated her latest tricks, daring feats like jumping over two dolls in a row. Now, disciplined by blow dryers, steam curlers and curling irons, her tresses behaved.
"You don't like Barker, do you?"
"He doesn't offer me much to like. Do you like him, that's more to the point?" And why, I wanted to add but didn't.
"I love him, Mom. He's absolutely brilliant. People don't understand him, that's why they don't like him."
"What people are you talking about?"
"Oh, the guys on the magazine. They're jealous of his talent. And my suite-mates … well, that's why I ended up leaving the dorm. Belinda had a blow-out with him that almost came to fists and Esther stood up for her. He convinced me it wasn’t worth my energy to make up with them. You want another coffee? I do."
"Sure." I watched her walk up to the luncheonette counter, her bouncy gait, the loose swing of her bag over her shoulder. I noticed she had lost more weight. She was getting close to that long ago emaciated look that scared me so.
"You're thinner, are you dieting again?" I asked as she slowly placed the cups down, careful not to tip the flimsy containers.
"Oh yeah, isn't it great? Barker said I was too fat and it was just the encouragement I needed. I've lost six pounds. We eat a lot of fish and broccoli."
"You don't eat at Quincy House, on your meal plan?"
"Oh lunch, yeah, but not dinner and I don't eat breakfast anymore. Barker makes the meals, he doesn't like the way I cook. He won't eat at Quincy anymore with all those elitist jerks. He's leaving Quincy next semester anyway for the Quad. Wants to be a loner there, a floater. Roommates give him a pain in the butt."
"Cara," I began, these fresh mortifications bolstering my attack. I paused and prepared to talk slowly, not my usual style, more like that of a thoughtful lawyer whose measured talk conveys the weighted importance of each syllable (though one can't ignore that lawyers bill by the hour). This observation seems funny to me so I smile. Cara smiles back as an almost automatic response. Women are less suspicious than men about these facial expressions from nowhere. “I know you must see something in Barker I don't see," I say at length. We sipped our coffee and I looked up at her. "I mean, after all, you know him better and I'm sure he's different with you than with me … and maybe with all those others too you said don't like him, that he fights with."
She received this without batting an eye which further demonstrated to me what an all-round dislikable creep he was.
"I'm not going to tell you that I don't like him much either, and I think you should move back into your dorm and forget him. I accept that you like him. I even accept,” and here I had to take a breath before finishing the sentence, “that you're in love with him."
"Oh, you would like him too, Mom, if you really got to know him. It's just that he's …-well, so smart, he has no patience for stupid people and --"
"I'm not stupid, Cara, and he's never even talked to me."
"Oh, of course you're not. I don't mean that, I mean the others ... Oh, I don't know what I mean."
"Okay, just listen to me now, Cara, I want to tell you something and it doesn't have to do with who Barker likes or doesn't like or who likes him. It has to do with you. You love him, let's start there."
She was looking at me steadily now. We were on the same team, the same side.
"It's okay to love someone that others don't and to not care whether they like him or not. It's okay to want to <em>give </em>to someone you love, to give <em>yourself</em>, that's okay too; it's what love wants to do." I stopped and gulped more coffee, trying to be careful, not rush, hoping she would stay with me and not push me away in a pique. Oh, how I loved this child of mine! And how urgently I wanted us to see together some clarity across the distance and find some helpful direction that she would be willing to take.
"It's okay to give yourself," I repeated, leaning forward and bringing my face closer to her. I was in her space, her bubble. But she had long ago put herself in mine. "What you must never do, though, Cara, is give <em>away </em>yourself. To anyone."
"I don't know what you mean." She was perplexed but interested, at least that.
"Look, Cara, you don't believe it now, but Barker might not be the only man to come into your life. You might become attracted to another man after him or even several men in time, you're very young. Don't give away that part of you that stands alone and apart from this man or any man. Of course you're influenced by Barker, just like you sometimes listen to what I say or Dad or your teachers, your friends. Okay, your perception of yourself isn't fixed. Barker says you're this or that and you believe him so you accept that you're this or that …fat, bright, stupid, on the right track, the wrong track, but that's not truth, not my truth, certainly. It's Barker's truth for you at a time and a state of mind in Barker's life.
“None of us is you, Cara, none of us. So don't give your sense of self to him or anyone—me, Dad, not even to the man you marry. Do you understand what I'm saying, Cara? Barker can never really hurt you if you hold onto that.”
I reached out across the table because I had to touch her and I was a little surprised and a lot grateful that she didn't move her arm away. I was leaning towards her and although she sat stiffly, she still looked at me as if she’d never seen me before and I suppose the way we were engaged with each other was new, locking eyes, not fussing with our hair or our napkins or spoons. I was encouraged enough by this to go on. "It's easy to give yourself away with certain men. You almost want to when you're in love and they're ready to take it. We can take it from them too, maybe not as easily the way things are, but we can be greedy as well. And if a man—I don't insist this is Barker's way, but it might be—can’t be satisfied, can't love you unless he has that last gift, that signing over of yourself, that emptying of your coffers to fill his own ... then leave him."
"Oh Mom!" She disengaged her hand and leaned back in her chair.
"Better that than leaving <em>yourself </em>to him." I wasn't stopping, not until I had said it all, hoping this, at least, could reach her through the murky haze in which Barker floated to her like some supreme God of the Intellect.
"Because after that, you're left with nothing."