Lily arrived late at Connecticut College for Women. She was the only one in her dorm unpacking clothes from home when the trees were leafless skeletons and the sky was pewter and the girls walking across campus ducked from the icy wind. I watched her lift clothes out of a suitcase and hang them in her closet, or fold them into the drawers of the bureau that would be hers for the rest of the year. She moved gingerly, as if a sudden step would open a wound. She was the saddest person I’d ever seen and beautiful, but her beauty was dimmed, her energy was dimmed, everything about her had been turned way down. Just looking at her cracked your heart. I felt like a spy because I knew, and she didn’t know that I knew. Lily had given birth to a baby. She was seventeen.
My boyfriend had told me even though he wasn’t supposed to, or had thought he wasn’t supposed to. His roommate at Wesleyan was Lily’s brother, and I guess the secret was too burdensome for the brother to keep. Or maybe the brother knew my boyfriend would tell me and thought that the sad news would cause me to be kind to Lily, to take her under my wing. She knew no one at college, and I was a junior.
I didn’t know anyone my age who had had a baby, and I wanted to know how it felt to give birth. When I asked my mother, she always said, “Oh, you forget the pain.” What pain? When? How? Did it stretch you all out? This was my future. This was in store for me. Was it as bad as getting teeth drilled without Novocain?
I had simply to befriend Lily and she’d tell me. Odd now to remember how exotic she seemed to me. One of the greatest mishaps to befall a girl had fallen on her, and I wanted to hear about it. As an English major, I was studying Lear’s misery and Tess’s destruction. Lily’s drama seemed just as profound and more relevant to my life.
Why didn’t she have an abortion? It was illegal, but we all knew where to go if necessary. Most of the girls in the infirmary at Connecticut College for Women were there because they were hemorrhaging after their visit to a man we called Dr. Adams, whose office was in Philadelphia. Girls in my dorm got on a Greyhound, visited Dr. Adams, returned, and stayed in bed until the sheets were drenched. Then they walked across campus to the infirmary.
Lily was an art major, which meant she spent most of her days in the art studio located in one of the stone buildings on the quad. The studio was light and airy and smelled of turpentine and damp clay. There she could be found most of the time, her long auburn hair falling forward as she bent to touch up paint at the bottom of her canvas.
My experience with sadness is that it makes you quiet. Lily was quiet. If you’re a person who likes to talk, being with a quiet person is a trial. You would think that talkers like to be with those who listen, but the opposite is true. We talkers like other talkers. They keep the tempo up. I found it a strain to be with Lily. This was a monkey wrench I hadn’t anticipated. How could I ever make her tell me her story if I didn’t spend time with her, and how could I spend time with her if I got restless in her company?
There would have been no problem at all if I’d thought that Lily was a great artist. Then the boredom would have been worth it, just the price to pay for being with genius, for being in the company of someone whose creations were compelling. Being with her canvases, however, was like being with her. Your mind started wandering. Her paintings were shapeless forms and watery colors. My opinion of her output wasn’t the real problem, of course, because maybe I was wrong and just didn’t appreciate something that was, in fact, remarkable. The real problem was that I knew that she didn’t take herself seriously. If she had, she wouldn’t have been at Connecticut College for Women in New London, where the downtown was nothing but bars full of sailors.