I’d driven past it a million times but had never thought of stopping until one night when I was heading back to my mom’s around two A.M. My dad, like my mom, didn’t really keep close tabs on me. Because of my school schedule – one night class, flexible daytime seminar hours, and several independent studies – I came and went as I pleased, with little or no questioning, so neither of them really noticed that I wasn’t sleeping. That night, I glanced in at Ray’s, and something about it just struck me. It looked warm, safe almost, populated by people who at least I had one thing in common with. So I pulled in, went inside, and ordered a cup of coffee and some apple pie. I stayed until sunrise.
The nice thing about Ray’s was that even once I became a regular, I still got to be alone. Nobody was asking for more than I wanted to give, and all the interactions were short and sweet. If only all relationships could be so simple, with me always knowing my role exactly.
Back in the fall, one of the waitresses, a heavyset older woman whose name tag said JULIE, had peered down at the application I was working on as she refilled my coffee cup.
‘Defriese University,’ she read out loud. Then she looked at me. ‘Pretty good school.’
‘One of the best,’ I agreed.
‘Think you’ll get in?’
I nodded. ‘Yeah. I do.’
She smiled, like I was kind of cute, then patted my shoulder. ‘Ah, to be young and confident,’ she said, and then she was shuffling away.
I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t confident, I just worked really hard. But she had already moved on to the next booth, chatting up the guy sitting there, and I knew she didn’t really care anyway. There were worlds where all of this – grades, school, papers, class rank, early admission, weighted GPAs – mattered, and ones where they didn’t. I’d spent my entire life squarely in the former, and even at Ray’s, which was the latter, I still couldn’t shake it.
Being so driven, and attending such an unorthodox school, meant that I’d missed out on making all those senior moments that my old friends from Perkins Day had spent this whole last year talking about. The only thing I’d even considered was prom, and then only because my main competition for highest GPA, Jason Talbot, had asked me as a sort of peace offering. In the end, though, even that hadn’t happened, as he canceled last minute after getting invited to participate in some ecology conference. I told myself it didn’t matter, that it was the equivalent of those couch cushions and cul-de-sac bike rides all those years ago, frivolous and unnecessary. But I still kind of wondered, that night and so many others, what I was missing.
I’d be sitting at Ray’s, at two or three or four in the morning, and feel this weird twinge. When I looked up from my books to the people around me – truckers, people who’d come off the interstate for coffee to make another mile, the occasional crazy – I’d have that same feeling that I did the day my mother announced the separation. Like I didn’t belong there, and should have been at home, asleep in my bed, like everyone else I’d see at school in a few hours. But just as quickly, it would pass, everything settling back into place around me. And when Julie came back around with her coffeepot, I’d push my cup to the edge of the table, saying without words what we both knew well – that I’d be staying for a while.
My stepsister, Thisbe Caroline West, was born the day before my graduation, weighing in at six pounds, fifteen ounces. My father called the next morning, exhausted.
‘I’m so sorry, Auden,’ he said, ‘I hate to miss your speech.’
‘It’s all right,’ I told him as my mother came into the kitchen, in her robe, and headed for the coffeemaker. ‘How’s Heidi?’
‘Good,’ he replied. ‘Tired. It was a long haul, and she ended up having a caesarean, which she wasn’t so happy about. But I’m sure she’ll feel better after she gets some rest.’
‘Tell her I said congratulations,’ I told him.
‘I will. And you go out there and give ’em hell, kid.’ This was typical: for my dad, who was famously combative, anything relating to academia was a battle. ‘I’ll be thinking about you.’
I smiled, thanked him, then hung up the phone as my mother poured milk into her coffee. She stirred her cup, the spoon clanking softly, for a moment before saying, ‘Let me guess. He’s not coming.’
‘Heidi had the baby,’ I said. ‘They named her Thisbe.’
My mother snorted. ‘Oh, good Lord,’ she said. ‘All the names from Shakespeare to choose from, and your father picks that one? The poor girl. She’ll be having to explain herself her entire life.’
My mom didn’t really have room to talk, considering she’d let my dad name me and my brother: Detram Hollis was a professor my dad greatly admired, while W. H. Auden was his favorite poet. I’d spent some time as a kid wishing my name were Ashley or Katherine, if only because it would have made life simpler, but my mom liked to tell me that my name was actually a kind of litmus test. Auden wasn’t like Frost, she’d say, or Whitman. He was a bit more obscure, and if someone knew of him, then I could be at least somewhat sure they were worth my time and energy, capable of being my intellectual equal. I figured this might be even more true for Thisbe, but instead of saying so I just sat down with my speech notes, flipping through them again. After a moment, she pulled out a chair, joining me.
‘So Heidi survived the childbirth, I assume?’ she asked, taking a sip off her coffee.
‘She had to have a caesarean.’
‘She’s lucky,’ my mom said. ‘Hollis was eleven pounds, and the epidural didn’t take. He almost killed me.’
I flipped through another couple of cards, waiting for one of the stories that inevitably followed this one. There was how Hollis was a ravenous child, sucking my mother’s milk supply dry. The craziness that was his colic, how he had to be walked constantly and, even then, screamed for hours on end. Or there was the one about my dad, and how he…
‘I just hope she’s not expecting your father to be of much help,’ she said, reaching over for a couple of my cards and scanning them, her eyes narrowed. ‘I was lucky if he changed a diaper every once in a while. And forget about him getting up for night feedings. He claimed that he had sleep issues and had to get his nine hours in order to teach. Awfully convenient, that.’
She was still reading my cards as she said this, and I felt the familiar twinge I always experienced whenever anything I did was suddenly under her scrutiny. A moment later, though, she put them aside without comment.