THIS PLACE SUCKS. You can’t even fuck a guy in your own room.”
The girl who said it was on the phone, looking back at the door through a thick tangle of dark hair as Rachel walked in. Her suitcase was already open on the bed by the window, clothes half settled into the dresser alongside. She was wearing a tie-dyed top and a black peasant skirt. Even before she hung up and introduced herself—Anastasia—Rachel knew that this girl was from somewhere else.
Longisland, she said, without even bothering to add New York.
“And what about you?” She had a sharp, pretty nose and steel-gray eyes. A tiny diamond flashed in her nostril as she settled her full frame into the sunlight on her bed. “You sound like a homegirl.”
“I’m from Cary.”
“Isn’t that over by the Research Park? I didn’t think people had accents there.”
“That’s right,” Rachel laughed. “‘Contained Area of Relocated Yankees,’ they call it. But yeah, I grew up in a place called Neeses.” She would admit it, she had decided, because the college thought it was her home. It was already posted on a placard on the door which her new roommate apparently hadn’t bothered to read. “In Bladen County.”
“Oh, up in the mountains?”
“It’s east from here.”
“Oh, the beach! Nice.”
“Neeses is about an hour from the beach.” She settled her new Coach purse onto the remaining bed. “About. We used to like to get down to Wrightsville when we could.”
“Cool.” Anastasia dug a toenail clipper out of her suitcase. “I wanted to go to a school by the beach but the only decent ones were in California,” she said, bending to her work. “My mom thought I’d party too much. Wanted me to go somewhere good but contained. You know. It ended up being here or Mount Holyoke, and I didn’t want to be stuck with all girls. Prissy. You know. Plus the weather.” She flicked a nail onto her nightstand. “How about you?”
“What?” Rachel was leaning toward the door, tugging at the chain on the gold bracelet her father had given her. Her mom was still waiting back at the car with her things.
“Where else did you apply?”
“Lots of places. Mainly I wanted to go to State.”
“State? Isn’t that the cow college?”
Rachel laughed again, longer than she wanted to. “I guess. I’d been thinking about vet school.”
“Goddammit!” Anastasia dropped the clippers and cradled her foot.
Rachel let her breath out and found that she had jumped a step toward the door. “You okay?” she said.
“Broke a goddamn nail. You got a tissue?”
Rachel pulled one out of her purse and handed it over. She could see a bright bead of blood on the other girl’s big toe.
“Shit. Okay,” Anastasia said, wrapping the cut. “So okay. Vet school. How’d you end up here?”
“Well. It’s gotten such a good reputation.” Rachel was watching the white tissue turn red. She didn’t like seeing her roommate bleed. It was too something—too intimate, too soon. “And I got a scholarship.”
“Cool.” Anastasia dug back into her suitcase. “One of the cigarette scholarships?”
“No. I got it through my church.”
“Church!” She pulled out a lighter and a pack of Winston Slims. “No shit?” she said, and settled a long one between her lips.
Barron had been a Baptist college when it was founded before the Civil War, and it had been a Baptist college when Rachel’s grandfather enrolled in 1945. It had even been a Baptist college when her parents got married there in the early seventies—girls allowed in but still no dancing and no drinking, and no smoking, even though by then the local tobacco magnates were giving almost as much money to the school as the Southern Baptist Convention was. And it was calling itself a university instead of a college.
“Everything went downhill from there,” her father told her.
He’d said it when she applied, and he’d said it again when she went out to Neeses to visit this past weekend. He still lived there with her brother—running the town’s one lonely law practice, writing up wills and helping people with their taxes and trying to keep up the family farm on the side. He rented half of it out to a watermelon farmer and paid to have the rest planted over in pine trees. Said that one day he was going to quit working with words and start earning his bread by the sweat of his brow himself. He had said that for a long time now and still hadn’t done it.
It should have gotten easier with his wife gone.
When Rachel was twelve, she hadn’t seen the divorce coming. Now, six years later, she wondered how they had lasted as long as they did. Now she knew it was bad from the start. Bad back when they finished Barron and he did his two years in the Marines, and she didn’t want to come home from California but he did. Bad after the three years of law school, when she didn’t want to come home from Raleigh but he did. Bad the whole ten years they’d been stuck in Neeses, back where she had grown up but couldn’t live anymore and where, except for food and the house and putting a little cloth on their backs and what he gave to the church, he didn’t like spending. She wanted more. And she’d work for it, too, but he didn’t much like her working and there was no money to be made in Neeses anyway, she said. Then she would dress up and drive to Raleigh to shop and he’d mutter about vanities, putting up treasures where rust and moths can corrupt them.
And then he had started bringing Rachel and her brother into it.
“You’re spending their futures,” he’d said to his wife in the dim kitchen one night—Rachel ten years old and hearing it herself now, eavesdropping, silently navigating the dark ancient farmhouse where he would brook no unneeded light, beginning to know with a strange sweet dread that something had gone wrong. “And teaching them wrong. About what’s worth getting.” He stood up and gazed down at the woman thumbing her magazine before him. “What will you leave them when you go?”
When she’d left and took Rachel—the father had fought hard for his boy—her own cousins had sided against her. They still acted like it was the wedding that had been inevitable, not the divorce. Everyone in Neeses did.
But Rachel wasn’t a part of Neeses anymore.
The first two years in Raleigh she hadn’t known this. It had been hard, living in an apartment on the salary her mom earned clerking for a real-estate lawyer. But she had known from the start what part of town to live in, and the public school Rachel entered that fall (under protest from her father, who only knew that Neeses High was a zoo) really unsettled her. In her eighth-grade class at Bladen Academy there had been twenty students, all white; in her ninth-grade class in Cary the students were still mostly white but there were over five hundred of them. Some had parents who had come down from the North and most of the rest had families that had left towns like Neeses a generation or two back. Rachel didn’t know how to dress and didn’t know how to talk. So she just listened to her classmates and her teachers and tried to catch up on everything she hadn’t learned in the past eight years. Then after school she would take the bus home, let herself in, and all the long lonely afternoon until her mother came home from work she’d study to the tinkle of wind chimes and the thok and thongg of tennis balls across the courts that marked the entrance to the place where they now lived.
Things went like that until her mother, always on the lookout for a house herself, became a Coldwell Banker agent and started making real money, she said, and bought them a small, pretty house next to the swim and racquet club in a new neighborhood called Whitehall. That summer Rachel got a job lifeguarding and was paired with a cheerleader from her school who was smart enough and pretty and, like Rachel, on the yearbook staff for the coming fall. Two weeks into June Rachel pulled a five-year-old out of the deep end directly beneath the chair where the cheerleader sat painting her nails.
“Thanks,” the girl said afterwards. “You really looked out for me.”
“No problem,” Rachel said.
And before long when she was off duty she wasn’t reading Jane Eyre or the book on Darwin that her teacher had bought her when she aced AP biology. She was reading the cheerleader’s copies of People and Cosmo instead.
Then one golden afternoon in mid-July after their shift ended she invited the girl over for lunch. They ate leftover pizza on the fine oak bar that bounded the gleaming kitchen, grabbed some drinks and sank down into the plush leather couch that had just been placed in the living room’s center. On one side French doors framed the play of sun and shadow beneath the pines that loomed over the back deck; on the other a dazzle of light poured in unchecked from the great front windows and across the sleek butterscotch grain of the coffee table. Rachel propped her head on one arm, took a sip of Diet Coke, and glanced at the clock, fearing the silent hours ahead. “What do you want to do?” she said.
The girl ruffled through the magazines on the table, selected a copy of Vogue, and tossed her hair aside. She leaned back easily into the couch. “Your mom has such cool stuff,” she said, crossing her trim brown legs. “Let’s just chill here for a while.”
“Cool,” Rachel said.
Next fall, during lunch period, a place was made for her at the cheerleader table.
By the time she graduated, Rachel had just gotten to feel at home in Cary. Money, as her mom told all her new clients, had named Raleigh-Durham the Number One Place to Live in America. The men hanging around her house now might have stepped out of an ad from that magazine. It had taken a while for Rachel to get used to the thought of her mom dating, but she had to admit that the men seemed nice enough, dressed nicely, drove nice cars.
And her own drive out to Bladen County seemed longer and longer all the time, the fields off I-40 flatter and duller, her family there more and more like strangers.
She’d known it that final weekend. Friday night with her father: he trying to pretend that he was excited about her starting Barron when it was clear that he was just worried, worried sick about what was going to become of her. That hadn’t surprised her. What did surprise her was the gift. She had opened it at the kitchen table, the gold bracelet with its plate inscribed I am with ye always. The plate was big and clunky and had a tiny pearl stuck between the with and the ye.
“Thank you, Daddy,” she said, and put it on while he watched in silence.
She spent most of Saturday with her brother, just turned seventeen, still a year away from college or the military or God knew what—not dumb but rebellious, stuck with his father and making the worst of it. The two of them and her cousin Ashlee and Ashlee’s boyfriend, the brother’s hunting buddy, doing all there was to do in Neeses on Saturday night: crammed into his pickup and sipping beer from cups, one eye on the lookout for the patrolman as they cruised past K-Mart and Dairy Queen and the defunct movie theater and turned around in the Family Dollar parking lot to do it all over again. Rachel bored and asking why didn’t they go to Hardee’s like they used to and the cousin’s boyfriend, dipping snuff now, spitting into his cup and saying, “Ain’t nothing there anymore but a bunch of rowdy niggers.”
She heard it and winced—she who had a nice light-skinned black classmate living a few doors down in Whitehall now, a girl who had come over to study calculus with her a few times. (“She doesn’t act black,” her mother said. “It’s not race; it’s culture.”)
No. Calling people niggers—Rachel wanted no part of that.
And then Sunday morning. Most weekends her mom still took her to church—a place where the congregation read parts aloud and sang half-hearted hymns and in the middle of the service the pastor would say a few things about loving yourself and listening to yourself and forgiving yourself and then everyone would get in their cars and go have brunch. Neeses First Baptist couldn’t have been more different. People there sang like they meant it—like God was a long way off and needed to hear from them—and standing between her silent hung-over brother and her tall upright father smelling of the same sharp aftershave his own father had smelled of, Rachel heard the pastor speak and she knew that he meant it too.
He was a rawboned, dark-haired, red-skinned man who without his glasses would have looked as if he’d just stepped out of a tobacco field. The scripture he’d chosen was from the Book of Judges and it was about the time when God’s people had first come into Canaan, when it was still a strange land and they were always in danger of falling down and worshipping the strange gods that the strange people who lived there worshipped. Some of those people were the Ephraimites, and once after the Israelites smote them they caught up all the soldiers running away from the battlefield and made them say a word, shibboleth. If they could say the word, it meant they were of Israel and chosen by God; but if they couldn’t and said sibboleth instead, it showed that they were not. They were enemies, to be put to death.
And there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
After the reading the pastor preached for a long time about profanity and filth and the media and the importance of reading the Bible. Finally he paused and let his gaze settle on the congregation. Then his voice grew level and calm and he said: “In this scripture the Lord tells us how we shall know our enemies. It is a hard lesson. But he who has given us the true Word tells us that we shall abide no false word, no words which do not bow before the one Word! How shall we know our enemies—those who serve the one enemy, the prince of lies? The Lord tells us: We shall know them by how they speak. And what they speak of.”
And once we know them, Rachel wondered, walking out into the bright noontime sun, then what? We cut their throats? She straightened the hemline on her dress and was thinking how ruthless the sermon was when she suddenly caught sight of her grandmother, walking toward her in a sunhat, and she had to smile. But as she leaned to embrace her there was a sadness, too, and all at once she knew that what brought it was not the sermon but everything that was missing here. Her father’s father, Granpatch, smelling of Old Spice and hugging her close to his side; Easter dresses and Christmas pageants; Sunday school with her brother, coloring cut-out pictures of Jesus the shepherd.
When she was a girl this church had seemed a part of home. It was this church that had, just last spring, gotten her the scholarship to Barron. But the place seemed stranger and stranger all the time, strange as the book the pastor read from (the book that even her father, who lingered so long over the newspaper every morning now, didn’t read much anymore). So judgmental. So bloody. If her mom ever talked to her about God she said, “I think God wants us to have a good time. Don’t you, honey?” And that’s what they said at her new church. But she had noticed that even there the pastor seemed to be working pretty hard to pull this out of the actual scripture. If he mentioned it at all.
Turning into the long drive back home with the three-o’clock sun beating down hard on her face, Rachel put on her sunglasses and rolled up the windows and cranked the air conditioner in the new Volkswagen Jetta her mom had bought her for graduation. Her bracelet got hung up for a moment as she flicked her turn signal to veer onto I-40; she shook it loose irritably, hitting the accelerator to pass a tractor that hugged the side of the on ramp. She was trying hard not to think about Neeses anymore. She wanted to think about the week and the year ahead instead.
Her mom had told her that Barron didn’t push religion much these days, and if they did it was going to be more like her new church than her old one. That, as far as Rachel was concerned, was a good thing. She didn’t want to spend time worrying about how people spoke. Or what they spoke of. She liked what she liked herself, she thought, and she didn’t like profanity for the same reason that she didn’t like the word nigger. Not because of anything the Bible said but because it seemed, as her mother would have put it, distasteful. Like a skirt that was made of the wrong fabric. It had nothing to do with the Ten Commandments. Or the Book of Judges.
Judges. Well, she thought—crossing 95 now, picking up her favorite radio station again, beginning to nod her head to the beat—she would leave the judging to her father. When it came to other people, judgment was not something Rachel wanted to be into.
“You goddamn fucking homophobe!” Anastasia screamed. She had just slammed the door on a Young Republican who was working a voter registration drive and making dire insinuations about an upcoming lesbian wedding in Barron Chapel.
“So a couple of dykes want to get hitched,” Anastasia said, turning to the mirror over their sink. “So what? Not like I’m a rug-muncher myself, but whatever gets your motor running. You know?”
Rachel, waiting with silent dread for her cousin to show up and diligently filing her nails ever since the boy had appeared at the door, didn’t answer. But she cocked her head curiously. She had thought a dike was something the Dutch built. She had learned a lot during the week she and Anastasia had lived together, and classes weren’t even starting until this afternoon.
Freshman orientation: the two of them thrown in with each other and over a hundred more in their dorm, almost two thousand in their class. Move-in day and tours, registration and mixers, diversity training sessions where one or two black students and a few Asians sat in rooms packed with whites and said as little as possible. One session of mandatory chapel where the class filled the white-columned barn-like building to the brim and the university president talked for a while about US News & World Report rankings before the university chaplain said a few things about service to humanity. By the end of the week two intrepid boys in their dorm had located a congenial convenience store, snuck five cases of Bud Light on campus in a trashcan, and held a party that lasted—Anastasia said—until three in the morning.
The boys were all on the first floor and the girls on the second. But Anastasia had already made a name for herself as a frequent visitor downstairs. She had also sprinted through the boys’ shower room immediately after their inaugural flag football game and subsequently delivered to Rachel and a few neighbors an impromptu oral report on the hidden attributes of their male counterparts. One boy named Kyle whom Rachel secretly favored was singled out for praise. “He’s hung like a fucking horse,” Anastasia said.
Rachel had never met anyone like Anastasia. She’d known of some crude girls in high school—freaks who smoked behind the gym, wore trashy clothes, cussed in public worse than any man she’d ever known. Other girls who talked dirty but only with each other. Also a few sluts, even respectable girls who were supposed to have secret sex lives. But Rachel had never before met a girl or even a boy who cussed openly, apparently backed it up, and was smart as a whip.
Because Anastasia apparently was. Rachel hadn’t known this until midweek, when all the scholarship students had been called together for a special mixer. There were three groups: Grace Scholars, like Rachel, all supported by the state Baptist Convention and their individual churches; Phillips Scholars, selected for academic merit and funded by tobacco money; and Winston Scholars, who were like Phillips Scholars, but better. The best. Anastasia, it turned out, was one of these. After talking with a few others, Rachel had begun to feel that she should have been one too. The Grace Scholars were mostly from small-town or rural North Carolina; the others were from suburbs all over the country. She had snacked on fruits and nuts with freshmen from Charleston and Atlanta, Dallas and Denver, Boston and Chicago. Cook County, anyway. Hinsdale, Illinois, the last boy told her. When Anastasia butted in and started talking about visiting Wrigley Field with her dad, Rachel had walked off alone to pour herself another Diet Coke.
It seemed like the only thing Rachel knew that Anastasia didn’t was the difference between the Old Testament and the New, which she’d had to explain because Anastasia was taking a world religions class and wasn’t sure about which books to buy.
“So Long Island is right off New York City,” Rachel said, filing a thumbnail for a second time.
“Yeah. Part of the city’s on the island. Brooklyn. Queens.”
“But you lived further out.”
“Not far. The city’s an easy train ride from Huntington. My mom and dad rode it in every day.”
Rachel had a hard time imagining such a thing.
“Mom was always home by seven,” Anastasia said, digging intermittently at her molars with a piece of floss. “Dad usually wasn’t back until after eight. And then, after I started high school, sometimes not until ten. That was when mom gave him the divorce papers.”
“And you and your mom moved to Atlanta.”
“Yeah.” She took a swig of mouthwash, flushed her cheeks vigorously, spewed a jet of blue into their sink. “He’ll still fly me up to the City, or wherever he’s at, on the holidays sometimes. So long as he gets the nod from his girlfriend du jour. He’s always good for handing out the cash. Too good, my mom says. She just wants me to be able to support myself. And not get pregnant. Hence the girls’ school last year.”
“Hated it. Hated it! Bitches.” She took a long last look at herself and tried to smooth her eyebrows and turned to Rachel. “So when’s your cousin going to show?”
“Don’t know.” Rachel held her hand up to eye her nails and shivered as her bracelet slid down her forearm like a cuff. The plate was a nuisance—your father never knew a thing about jewelry, her mom said—and lately she was wearing platinum more than gold. The whole thing just looked tacky.
“Well, I got to go.” Anastasia straightened her halter top and opened the door. “I’m grabbing lunch with the guys from 204.”
“Oh yeah?” That was okay. Kyle wasn’t in 204; he had a single. His grandfather was on the board of trustees.
“Yeah. And Kyle too.” She grabbed her bag and strolled halfway out the door before turning back with a wink. “Put in a good word for you, I guess. See you in class.”
Barron was small enough that Rachel—with Ashlee trailing behind her now—realized as soon as she opened the door that she already knew a third of the faces in her honors seminar. And before their first meeting was over, she thought with a grimace, they’d all know her cousin too.
Including Kyle. There he was, sitting alongside Anastasia in his new frat shirt, already rushed, a tall blond boy from Charlotte who seemed like just the kind of guy her mom would approve of. Basically conservative, but stylish, and not too uptight about anything. Rachel had had a few one-on-one conversations with him in the dorm and a ride to the grocery store in his Blazer and immediately pegged him as the type she was looking for. Not for marriage—it was too early to think about that. Look at her parents. But she was lonely, and tired of playing the fool to girls like Anastasia. Her mom had put her on birth control a few months ago and she was ready for something serious. Ready, she thought to herself sometimes, smiling at the drama of it, to lose her innocence, which despite muted advances from one respectable high school boyfriend she had maintained all these years (except for one little experiment, sort of, almost, maybe, with one of her brother’s friends when she was sixteen and which really didn’t count anyway because it had happened a long way off, outside Neeses, at a hunting lodge where there had been some blood spilled and she didn’t like to think about it).
Taking a seat at the table as her cousin settled in alongside, she still couldn’t fathom why she had to do this. Ashlee was a rising senior at Bladen Academy and dumb as dirt. She’d be lucky to last a semester at Bladen Tech, let alone get into Barron. But when she had announced four days ago that she wanted to see the school, Rachel’s dad called her up and insisted. Ashlee was family and part of the church and it just had to be done.
Part of the church my ass, Rachel thought. Ashlee was known to be a little loose and, sitting there now, she looked the part. She had done her best to dress up but was wearing pink shorts that were too tight and enough makeup to have lasted Rachel a week. She had her hair poofed out all over her head and mascara on her eyes and gum in her mouth, and she chewed it listlessly, popping a little bubble as Anastasia smiled at them from across the table with a look that said What have we here?
Rachel tugged at her bracelet and tried to distract herself with the syllabus sitting on the table in front of her. The seminar’s title was America, Ethnicity, & Assimilation and the weeks ahead were chopped up into neat little blocks with titles like Native American, Asian-American, and Latino/a. It all made a sort of sense until the last one: Queer.
Rachel was feeling a little queer herself when the door opened and a trim swarthy man with dark hair and thin wire glasses began walking brisk circles around the table. She’d seen the professor’s name—Dr. Zebede—on paper, and now she heard it. He was much younger than she’d expected and he talked very fast. He said he was going to wait until the end of class to meet and greet and handle all the red tape because he wanted to jump right into the thick of things. They had all received a letter from him last week assigning a story for them to read—homework before the first day of class!—and he told them to get it out.
The story was about a black woman and her daughters and some old family quilts that they were fighting over. Rachel had liked it, even tried to describe it to Ashlee on the walk over. But she had no idea what she was expected to say about the story, and apparently no one else did either, because when the professor finally settled into his chair and asked what sounded like a pretty basic question—“Anyone: what do you think the larger significance of the quilts is here?”—there was silence.
Larger than what, Rachel wondered?
Professor Zebede waited a long five seconds and then he looked down at a sheet of paper in front of him and said, “Ashley.”
Across the table Rachel saw an Ashley from Birmingham wet her lips, but the voice she heard next to her was her cousin’s. “They’re like that,” it said.
The professor looked at her and said, “They’re like that?”
“You don’t have to call me sir.”
“They’re like what?”
“They’re good with quilts.” There was a pause and the professor looked at Ashlee and she swallowed hard. “Because they’re good with colors.”
“Them. Colored people.”
Rachel turned to Ashlee and gave her a look that must have been as wild-eyed as the one staring back at her. Colored people. Not even Dad said that. Granpatch said that, and he was dead.
Professor Zebede’s mouth listed open but no words came out. He looked like a man who’d been walking in the woods with one eye out for snakes but had come upon a brachiosaurus instead.
“I see the quilts as a metaphor for African-American culture,” Anastasia said.
Professor Zebede turned, let out a barely audible sigh, and sank back in his chair. Then he gently nodded his head. “Good. Very good. Very good—”
“Anastasia. Very good. Now. How would you support that assertion?”
“Well, first, the quilts are the work of more than one individual. Second—” she said, and saying it leaned into the table, beaming, as if she were some elder mistress hosting a dinner party in her own home.
When Rachel walked out of the class with her cousin beside her—known to all after Zebede finally called the roll as her cousin, blood kin—she still wasn’t sure what had happened. But she felt as if she had somehow been judged. Judged, and found wanting. All the long walk back to the dorm with Ashlee a half-step behind her she felt a burning shame, a shame that she’d ever had one foot in Neeses. Yet the campus itself seemed no haven and with her back to her cousin now she walked the crowded quad like a stranger in a strange land.
But then in September she found another girl from Cary and one from Richmond and they all wore J. Crew outfits and went to football games and made plans to rush the same sorority in the spring, and she saw as little of her roommate as possible. Anastasia had started writing a column called “Nasty Notes” about STDs and condoms and multiple sex partners—a group of concerned alumni had promptly begun writing letters to the editor and cancelling their subscriptions to the school paper—and at mid-semester when she mooched a ride with Rachel and her new friends to a frat party and got staggering drunk and disappeared into the back of the house with three or four guys they all said, “Looks like Nasty’s more than just talk,” and they left.
Rachel felt bad about it for a while when she woke up Sunday morning and saw the other bed still empty. But she had been woken other nights by Anastasia stumbling in with random boys, and on the whole this was preferable. She went to the cafeteria for brunch and then straight to the library where, before long, Kyle came in from the golf course and settled into the seat across from her.
When she came back from watching TV in his room late that evening, she saw her roommate curled in bed and staring straight up at the ceiling. She quickly changed into her nightgown, put her bracelet in a nightstand drawer alongside the Bible her grandmother had given her, and settled into her own bed. During all this time she said nothing. And neither, for once, did Anastasia.
It was threatening snow now even though it was only mid-December—this place was so strange, Barron’s high piedmont another world from the near-tropics down below Charleston, where they’d taken a swim at the beach just six weeks before—and Professor Zebede had one eye on the weather. He had to get back to his office soon to meet with a few students. He was a conscientious teacher, and he didn’t want to fail them. But right now, in this last week of classes before the Christmas break—Barron still called it that—his parents were visiting, and he was having lunch with them at Cherokee Bagel. He and his wife and baby Saul.
Professor Zebede liked his parents. It had made him laugh just to see them when they had gotten off the plane the day before: his mom a pretty brunette, fashionably dressed, looking closer to forty than her actual fifty-five, his father a small stoop-shouldered sharp-eyed man who looked like he smoked even though he didn’t. He might have been her father, or at least an uncle. Walking into the terminal to embrace their son they had seemed pleasantly disoriented. Except for helping with the move last summer, this was their first time in North Carolina, and they were still getting the lay of the land.
“I still can’t believe this is the only place in town where you can get a bagel,” Mrs. Zebede said over the babble of the crowd.
“You’re a long way from LA, sweetie.” Her husband had been living in California for thirty years himself but still liked to pose as a New Yorker.
“The state’s changing, though,” the professor said.
“Keep doing business like this, it’ll have to.” Mr. Zebede had one eye on the kitchen window. He worked for a national advertising firm but his father had run a men’s clothing store in Brooklyn, and he always professed a keen respect for small businessmen. “I’m impressed. This is a smooth operation.”
“Sounds a little envious, doesn’t he?” Mrs. Zebede sipped her latté.
“This could be your big break, Dad. You could finally quit talking for a living”—he’d always said he was going to—“move here, and set up shop. Zebede Bagel has a nice ring to it.”
“Fat chance. This place is going to have to do a lot more changing first.”
“Well, Ron and Teresa have been making the best of it,” his wife said. “It can’t be so bad. Barron’s certainly being good to them.”
“Still the best job offer I got,” the professor said. “No question about it. It’ll do until we can get back west.”
“Of course it will.” Mrs. Zebede was the family optimist. But turning to the baby she knit her brow lightly and said, “Just please try to get back home before my grandchild says y’all, please.”
A dark man put their bagel sandwiches in front of them and they began to eat. Teresa, who’d been feeding the baby from a jar, handed him his bottle and began to pick at her plate. “Well, it does feel like Planet X here sometimes,” she said.
“The campus or the town?” Mrs. Zebede said.
“Both. Even some of the top students. Those—what are they, Ron?”
“Grace Scholars. They’re meant to keep the whole Baptist thing here going. To a degree.” She took a bite of her sandwich and paused to tuck a leaf of lettuce into her mouth. “I mean, some of those kids spend their summers doing ‘mission trips.’”
“Like missionary trips.”
“Where do they go?” Mr. Zebede asked.
“Latin America, mostly.”
“Not Christian enough down there for ‘em already?”
Teresa rolled her eyes. “Catholic doesn’t count. Not really.” She was letting her Italian roots show. “One of them told me she has a friend who’s going on a mission trip to Rome!”
“Missionaries.” Mrs. Zebede dabbed at her lips with a napkin. “Now that is different.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mr. Zebede said. “It’s not that different. Ron’s on sort of a mission trip here himself, isn’t he?”
Professor Zebede bit down hard on his bagel. Here it comes, he thought.
“What kind of a mission?” Mrs. Zebede said.
“Well, a mission to the indigenous crackers, of course. Going to teach them queer theory. Save us all from their false religion.”
“Pop, you are really something else,” the professor said. “You are really a piece of work.”
Teresa snickered into her bagel. Mrs. Zebede smiled demurely and whispered some faint recrimination to her husband, but the old man only stopped chewing long enough to bare his teeth at his son before turning back to the business at hand.
Then Saul started screaming and threw his bottle across the table and they all had to pack up and leave.
Driving back through the campus gate, Professor Zebede glanced at his watch—thirty minutes before his first student arrived—and looked up to see a short, swarthy man wielding a leaf-blower step out from behind a tree. The figure seemed to gaze at him a long moment before he jerked his own eyes back to the road.
They’re here, he thought, the ones he’d imagined having left back home. Mexican and Guatemalan and Honduran. Rushing out of the bagel place he had almost collided with one, a stocky mustachioed man emerging with a tray of dirty dishes from behind the wooden Indian by the front door. “Discúlpeme!” the man had shouted as Professor Zebede twisted around him at the last second. Before he knew what he was doing he had muttered “Gracias” and trotted out the door behind his wife, feeling like a fool.
That was pretty much the extent of his Spanish. And one day, he fretted casually as he parked his car, all Barron would know that. Not that he’d actively hidden it—he taught American literature, so there was no requirement for him to speak the language. But for a guy who’d written his dissertation on Latino/a authors, it did make him seem kind of suspect. Maybe he should have stuck with Jewish lit after all. The thing about being Sephardic was that you could present yourself either way. And when you were an ethnic literature specialist, it could really work for you.
Professor Zebede reminded himself of this as he glanced at the copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education on his office desk. Then, as always, he chided himself for being so crude. But then, as always, he thought again: the market was real. And it was tight. And you had to know what words to use, had to know how to sell yourself. How—he couldn’t believe it had come to this—how to be a businessman.
You’d think that might have gotten him a little more respect from his dad.
But things were different for him, after all. For his father the family name was more than just a name. Though the truth was that sometimes the whole weight of Zebede history—hard as the professor tried to keep it at a critical distance—would descend on him, too. And alone in his cluttered office now, stuck with twenty minutes to kill and with Bellow glaring down at him from the bookshelf, it came. It came, all of it, unbidden, the memories that didn’t even belong to him: the unseen fathers who outlasted the Inquisition, their untold centuries spent wandering the Mediterranean; his grandfather, canny enough to get out of Europe in the thirties and move himself and four kids across another ocean to another country. And make a living. And keep his identity, too: Conservative temple, Shabbat every week. Then his own father. Stifled in Brooklyn. Going to the movies, dreaming bigger American dreams, heading west. And making it there. Money enough for comfort, and more—money enough to send back home.
And then he went and married a California girl, a reform Jew, and stopped going to temple except sometimes during high holy days and his father knew but did not know what to say.
That was all a long time ago and the grandfather was dead now but sometimes Professor Zebede saw him lurking behind his father’s eyes. That comment back in the bagel shop. There were times when he worried that his dad was suddenly going to reach into his back pocket, slap on a yarmulke, and start reading to him from Leviticus. About abominations, men lying down with men. Putting people to death. That kind of thing.
But it would never happen like that. Professor Zebede’s dad was a good liberal—he knew that—and it wasn’t really queer practice that bothered him so much. It was queer theory. “What the hell does that even mean?” he’d exploded the first time he had heard his son say it. “And what does that have to do with all the ‘Latino’ stuff? Don’t tell me the Latinos are going to go for this kind of thing.” He’d shaken his head and stared hard out the window of their house back in San Pedro. “Ten years,” he said. “You’ve spent ten years studying what?” His son followed his eyes past the small eucalyptus grove to their one thin slice of ocean view, a distant dark freighter easing its way into the open Pacific.
He looked hard out of his own meager office window now. The view couldn’t compete. Not that he’d ever wanted prestige, or loads of money, but he had hoped he could at least stay at home. And this, he thought now, this is where ten years of reading and writing have gotten me—staring at one of the magnolias planted up and down Barron’s main quad and beyond to the parking lot where his own battered Honda sat surrounded by the students’ BMWs and Saabs and the occasional Ford pickup. Stuck square in the middle of some surreal post-Baptist faux-plantation New South fantasy world.
Yes, this is where his words had gotten him—the academic words that irked his father so much. His old man liked to think of himself as dealing with people and things, not words. But they weren’t so different. His father worked in advertising, for God’s sake. And the truth was that even Professor Zebede had been educated to interrogate words, not to believe in them. He was always telling his students that just because writers used religious language didn’t necessarily mean that they posited any larger “reality” (here he made quotation marks with his fingers) which corresponded to such signifiers.
The few real believers left at Barron, he’d found, didn’t take this kind of thing lightly. It really gave him a charge to grapple with those kids. One thing about these country Bible-beaters: they’d stand their ground. And the weird thing was that sometimes they reminded him of his grandfather, who knew what he believed in and who he was and lived and almost died for it.
Words, just words—that’s all the Tanakh was.
But the people his grandfather fled as well as his grandfather himself would have said Jew wasn’t just a word. It was in the blood.
He had been educated not to accept such essentialist notions. Not to believe that words and biology, words and nature—if nature itself were anything more than a word—had anything to do with each other. He was supposed to know better. But okay: since his son had been born, maybe he had felt it. Born to a gentile mother and therefore to his dead grandfather not even a Jew at all. Not that this bothered him. But Saul. Okay, so maybe he’d given in to words. Maybe he’d tried to claim the boy. With a name. Maybe even to get back at his mom for his own name. She denied it, but all his life he’d harbored a secret fear that he had been named for the actor elected governor the year he was born.
As if words had power—were magic!
He knew better, should have known better, but already watching his young son stand and stagger and fall he stared and caught himself wondering: what words would he teach the boy?
Two o’clock. Rachel was right on time. Pretty girl, sorority type. She’d gotten off to a decent start, good writer, showed some potential. Probably smart enough, in her sheltered suburban South kind of way. But shallow. At mid-semester she had written her first paper on the memoir of a Puritan woman who had been taken captive by a Native American tribe in colonial New England. But then, instead of focusing on the narrative’s ethnocentric judgments, like she was supposed to, Rachel had talked about how the author had tried to use the Bible to give meaning to her exile, to maintain her faith that God would ultimately lead her back home. Predictable. He’d been mildly impressed that the girl seemed to know something about another book, even if it was the Bible. But still he marked her down for not following the assignment. Later it had come to him that he probably would have given her a better grade except that halfway through the paper he could tell that she didn’t even believe her own argument. That, he had finally realized, was what had really gotten to him: that she didn’t even know where she stood.
In any case, about the time she got the paper back she had seemed to lose any real engagement with the course, seemed to start just going through the motions. He could see it again now in the way she casually greeted him and handed him her draft. He looked it over and told her how to improve it, but in fact he’d already given up on her. Written her off. Cast her into the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. She was going to get a B.
Then her boyfriend, Kyle. Frat shirt. As usual. Two peas in a pod. Rachel waited outside for him, reading a textbook with a big meaty heart on the cover.
When he stood to usher the boy out, his 2:40 was coming down the hall. Anastasia. He stepped back into his office as she breezed into the middle of the other two and turned to face Rachel.
“Well, hello hello.”
Rachel didn’t answer but began to pluck at her bare wrist strangely. Even from his desk Zebede could see that the skin was slightly raw there, as if she were bothered by an itch that she’d not been able to scratch, an itch buried deep in bone and blood.
Anastasia continued to stare at her intently. “So. Are you ever coming back for all of your crap?” she said.
“We’ll be getting it after break,” Kyle said.
“Going home to Neeses next week?” Anastasia said.
“No.” Kyle slid his arm around Rachel’s waist. “She’s coming home with me.”
“That figures. Well. You two have yourselves a merry little Christmas.”
Anastasia stepped briskly into Zebede’s office as the couple disappeared down the hall, and when she smiled up at him he smiled back. Those other two were hopeless—all through college they’d settle for just getting by (and would still end up with twice as much money as he ever would. He could see them now, settled down in a three-story house alongside a golf course). But this girl. She was something else. Smart as hell. And she cut a real figure on campus—she’d plumped out considerably over the course of the semester, gained an admirable infamy among her peers, her little newspaper column given over more and more to what the opposing columnist called “man-hating rants.” Even he thought she was a little over the top; but he liked the way she shook things up around here. Had gotten off to a rocky start on her assignments—partying too much, probably. And then something had happened at mid-semester, something personal, and he had worried she was going to transfer.
But she had come out of it tough. A fighter. A fighter who wasn’t going to let this strange place and its strange people beat her down, who was going to take this place and make it her own.
“How’s it going?” he said.
“It’s going. I just fucking love this last book we read.”
“Tell me about it.”
And sinking back into his chair now as he watched her settle into the one across from him—smiling, relaxed—he saw Rachel pass outside the window behind her. The weather had cleared, and she stepped out of the shadow of the magnolia into a gathering brightness. She was headed toward the parking lot but stopped to stare back toward his office, or maybe toward the chapel up at the top of the quad. Kyle was no longer with her, and facing the sun now she lifted a naked hand to her eyes and frowned quizzically, as if she were lost, or had forgotten something.
Anastasia’s voice pulled him back into the office. But with one eye still on Rachel the professor felt neither here nor there, and then, just then, he began to see the picture the two of them made together. Something was amiss. Looking at the two of them, one beside the other, he listened, and as Anastasia’s words washed over him he felt strangely dissatisfied. As if he had failed her. For it suddenly occurred to him that she did feel completely at home here—at ease, content. Like one who knew that she had been chosen.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.