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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Give Me a (Thanksgiving) Break

It’s Elisabeth Eckleman’s first year of college, and she has a lot of tough choices to make. In this installment, Elisabeth travels home for a visit and returns to a roommate whose behavior is becoming more and more difficult to live with. You decide what happens next.

In the last installment, Elisabeth had to decide whether or not to continue protecting Raj, her T.A., after her professor called her in to speak to an academic advisory board. With Thanksgiving break coming up, Elisabeth was headed home to visit her sick mother and to decide what to do when she returned. You voted for her to... come clean and stop protecting Raj.

 

When my dad and I arrive home from the airport, I go into their bedroom and find my mother asleep with a book on her chest, snoring like she claims she never does.

“Don’t worry about waking her,” he says, dragging off my bags. “She’s been asleep all morning.”

Growing up, I always wanted a pretty mom. Other moms seemed so beautiful—with their expensive hairdos, their sleek, tanned shoulders smelling of powder and perfume. My mother rarely wore makeup, tied back her long, sleek black hair in a drab ponytail, stuck to sensible shoes. Whenever we visited the mall, I nudged her toward lip gloss, a sexy pair of sling-back heels perhaps, but she had no patience for it.

“Do you know what kind of damage heels wreak on your body?” she would ask. “They’re like tiny torture devices.”

Yeah, but they make you look so much thinner.

My mother was an embarrassment of logic and simplicity. But as I look at her now, I am struck at how I conflated prettiness with fussiness. Why did I do this? My mother was never done up, never glamorous. But even now, she is pretty.

“Whatchya readin’?” I ask her.

She drowsily picks up the book and stares, uncomprehending, at the cover. “Some crap your father bought me,” she says, tossing it on the floor.

I scootch onto the bed, wondering where to put my hands. “How you feelin’?”

She wraps her cold fingers into my palm and smiles. “Wonderful.”

 

My father has ordered Chinese for Thanksgiving. This is the kind of indulgence my family almost never engages in, and it feels like eating ice cream for breakfast.

We eat in my parents’ bedroom off our TV trays. I try to ignore my mother fumbling with her fork, the fried rice that spills down her nightgown. Instead, I entertain them both with stories about school. About Kat and Chad, about Ariel and Brad and Geoff.

“I don’t understand how your R.A. can smoke pot every day,” says my father.

“Exactly. Isn’t marijuana illegal?” asks my mother.

My parents are so cute like this.

That night, we stay up watching television together, another rare Eckleman treat. My parents always limited the TV I watched to no more than two hours a day. They were absolute Nazis about it; I’d have to go to Brad’s just to watch the Oscars. But now, my mother can only read so much before her eyes grow weary, so my father moved the TV onto her dresser.

“Your mother is an ace at Wheel of Fortune,” my father says, patting her knee.

She rolls her eyes. “You should see me at Jeopardy.”

My mother’s health is not so good, but we do not talk about this. I know she and my father have opted for pain pills rather than chemo, for home care rather than hospitals. I hear them talk about these things in other rooms, and I stand at the doorway with a queasy feeling in my stomach. I want to know what’s happening—of course I want to know—but I am also amazed at how willingly I will play the role of their little girl, quietly frightened of dark things in the closet as my parents grapple with what is really going on.

My mother drops her eggroll, and a spray of soy sauce hits the white sheets. “Oh God, and we just washed these.”

“Please,” says my dad, “I could care less.”

My mother and I correct him at the same time: “Could not care less.”

My dad shakes his head as he cleans the mess: You two.

The next morning I wake early and make a big breakfast. Eggs, bacon, toast, and a giant glass of Diet Coke. My mother is humming as she works on a jigsaw puzzle, a rosy Renoir painting she always admired. I sit in bed with her for hours, balancing the tray on our knees as we search for the right pieces. It feels good. It feels normal.

“Elisabeth, phone call!” my father hollers from the other room. Something in his voice makes me jump. As he hands me the receiver, he whispers, “It’s Brad.”

 

Yesterday, after Thanksgiving dinner, Brad made the five-hour drive from our hometown back to Austin to see Ariel. It was an impulse move; they’d been fighting, he missed her, blah-blah-blah. That night, they drove to one of the campus parks, the one with the brook running through it. They talked, they made up, blah-blah-blah.

On the way home, a car smashed into the side of his Volvo. Brad came out with cuts and bruises. Ariel was still in critical condition.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen.” His voice is jumpy, high-pitched. “I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s gonna be all right,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else.

The scratch of his lighter, a deep inhale. “When are you coming back?” he asks. “I’m going crazy over here.”

When Brad and I broke up, we made a lot of happy chatter about staying friends, because that’s what you do when you break up. Of course we’d be in each others’ lives, of course we’d be close, but what I was really thinking all along was that eventually, he’d realize what a fool he was to break up with me, fall to his knees, and beg my forgiveness. The truth was I didn’t want to be friends with Brad—I wanted to date him, and being friends seemed like the constant reminder of that particular failure. But it’s weird. Hearing him so panicked and scared, I feel sort of honored that he called.

When I get back to my mom’s bedroom, she has drifted to sleep with her hand on the puzzle. A white line of saliva runs down the side of her cheek. I walk over to the edge of the bed and kneel next to her.

“The Professor’s gotten himself into a bit of trouble,” I tell her, hoping the invocation of his pet name will soften what I’m about to tell her. “I’m gonna need to catch an early flight back to school.” Tears well up in my eyes, and I wipe them away angrily.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, tucking a piece of hair behind my ear.

“I feel bad about leaving,” I say. “I don’t want to leave you.”

She catches a stray tear. “Oh, Elisabeth,” she says. “It can’t be easy to have such a good heart.”

 

Brad sits outside the hospital, chain smoking. “I feel so weird,” he says, shifting around on the bench. “Is this how you felt? When you found out about your mom?”

I shrug. It’s hard to remember the feelings now. Everything felt like it had some kind of buzz. I couldn’t comprehend what was going to happen next, like anticipating everything and nothing all at once.

Ariel’s family sits inside the waiting room, playing card games to pass the time. They are just as I imagined them—handsome and well-dressed and polite. I feel certain they can all quote Shakespeare.

“What if she doesn’t get better?” Brad asks, and starts to tear up. I look away. And then I rub his back. And eventually, I go and get some Kleenex. “I feel so guilty,” he says.

“Some asshole sideswiped you,” I tell him. “It wasn’t your fault.”

He lights another cigarette and looks at me. “But what if it was my fault?”

Goddammit, I knew it: He was drunk when they got in the wreck.

 

When I get back to the dorm, the whole place is a mess—Diet Coke cans on the floor, an empty pizza box in the corner. Kat’s underwear litters the room. I think about picking it up and then stop myself. Let her clean up her own shit.

At 5:30 a.m., a noise startles me awake. A creaking sound. A shuffling noise. A voice. (Two voices?) Oh God, what now? These days it seems like anything is possible—a murderer outside my door, a monster underneath my bed.

Kat’s voice. “Do you like that? Huh? Do you?”

A groan that is not mine nor Kat’s. I throw a pillow over my head, and try to go to sleep.

 

On Monday at noon, I appear before the academic advisory board. I have decided to come clean, no matter the consequences for me or Raj. I’m tired of feeling buried by evasions and half-truths. I’m tired of covering up for other people. I’m tired because Kat’s guest has been over two nights in a row. It’s so gross.

“Are you generally in the business of lying to your professors when they confront you?” one of the women on the council asks.

“It was a mistake,” I say. “I had nothing to hide. I just panicked.”

“Ms. Eckleman, you’re an excellent student,” says another. “But we’re a little concerned you’re picking up the wrong habits. Critical to any undergrad’s success is to be surrounded by positive, rather than deleterious, influences.”

I’m not sure what “deleterious” means, but I can guess. The council dismisses me with nothing more than stern glances and a warning. I ask what’s going to happen to Raj—I mean “Mr. Kalyani”—but they only scribble on notebooks, silent.

“They’ll take my class away next semester,” Raj says flatly when I call him that night. “My scholarship will be in jeopardy.”

“I’m so sorry,” I say.

“It’s my fault. I never should have let any of this happen.”

I suspect I may never see Raj again after the semester is over. He will be one of those forgotten players in my college career. Remember that guy? The handsome T.A.? I wonder if all histories unfold like this—not like books or movies, where the characters stay the same, but with an ever-rotating cast of people who burst on to the scene only to disappear forever. Like Wesley, or Shelley, people who seemed certain to stick around and then shot off in some other direction. It’s not surprising people don’t stay friends in college. Maybe it’s more surprising when they do.

 

On Tuesday I come back to the dorm around noon and find Kat, naked in bed again with her friend, who turns out to be horribly hairy. I still don’t know his name. I throw my bookbag loudly on the ground. An empty beer can skitters across the floor.

Kat startles awake. When she sees me, she plops back down in bed. “Hey,” she says.

The least she could do is be embarrassed.

“Ariel’s doing better,” I say. “They took her out of ICU.”

She yanks a tank top over her head. “Great.”

“Are you going to class today?”

“Are you going to visit your alcoholic ex-boyfriend today?”

So it’s going to be like that. Fine. I read quietly at my desk, waiting for either of them to do something. I pop open a Diet Coke. I drum my fingers on the table. I sigh loudly.

Finally, around 1 in the afternoon, the hairy guy rises. “Babe, I gotta bounce,” he says, pulling on his jeans. “We’ll chill later, a’ight?”

What a stooge.

Kat turns on the television and plucks one of my Diet Cokes out of the fridge.

“We need to talk about our living arrangement,” I say finally, not disguising the strain in my voice very well.

She raises one eyebrow.

“I don’t think it’s right for you to be sleeping with this guy,” I start. A disaster already.

“Is that your fucking business? I don’t think you wanna go down that road, Eckleman.”

I take a deep breath and start over. “OK, let me be more direct. I don’t like you sleeping with this guy in our dorm every night.”

“Fine, we’ll go to his place.” She drains the Diet Coke, tosses it in the trash, and misses.

“That’s another thing. You’ve gotten kinda messy. I can’t get to the bathroom at night without tripping over your shoes and your clothes. And that reminds me—where does this guy go to the bathroom in an all-girls’ wing, anyway?”

“He uses our sink,” she says.

My politeness ruptures. “Jesus Christ, what are you, some kind of crack whore?”

“What are you, my mom?”

We fight like this for a while. A shoe is thrown. Names are called. I hardly know what I’m saying as it exits my mouth. Druggie, slut, deadbeat. She shoots back: Pretentious bitch, pushover, baby.

She leaves finally, slamming the door. I yell after her, “Finally! At least now I know how to get you out of our room!”

Afterward, I seek comfort in a place I never thought I’d find it. India’s room.

 

“I’m sorry, but your roommate’s a crazy bitch,” says India, offering me a beer.

“What’s your roommate like?” I ask.

“Talk about a blowout,” she says, laughing. It makes me notice how lovely her face can be. “She didn’t last two weeks before going home. Too much pressure. I’m lucky to have the place to myself, I guess. But, you know, it’s lonely.”

We talk for hours in her dorm, letting the hours tick by in a steady stream of beer and confession. I tell her all about Brad, and Raj. I even tell her about my mom, and maybe it’s the alcohol, but I can’t keep the tears from dripping off my chin.

“Can I stay here tonight?” I ask, blowing my nose.

She hands me another Kleenex. “Honey, you can live here if you want.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

Not a bad idea, I think, as I pull down the sheets to the other bed.

“Why don’t you sleep in my bed?” she asks. “It’ll be like a slumber party.”

We lie under her sheets, warm and giggly. It reminds me of how my mother and I used to lay in bed when I was a kid, our bodies curled beside each other, the soft cadence of her breath in my ear. I’m out almost immediately. I sleep better than I have in days.

Should Elisabeth keep living with Kat and try to work things out or move in with India?