My Unsentimental Education

“I wanted him to understand my life—that I’d been caught in the local pattern and found the safest way forward, but if I’d lived somewhere else I’d be someone else and still could.”

Debra Monroe | My Unsentimental Education, The University of Georgia Press | Oct. 2015 | 14 minutes (3,487 words)

A misfit in Spooner, Wisconsin, with its farms, bars, and strip joints, Debra Monroe left to earn a degree, then another, and another, vaulting into academia but never completely leaving her past behind. Her memoir My Unsentimental Education was published today, and our thanks to the University of Georgia Press for allowing us to reprint the chapter below. Two previous excerpts from the book have been long-listed for The Best American Essays (2011 and 2015), and an early excerpt also appeared on Longreads in 2013.  

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I dove deep into the fracas of high school—including kids who lived in town, also kids who rode the bus and smelled like barn—where my sister was a cheerleader and Rodeo Royalty (doubling as “Miss Spooner and Her Attendants”).  She followed rules.  On weekends, she drank and made out because these were rules.  So was not getting caught.  I objected to not-getting-caught.  Over the summer I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; My Darling, My Hamburger; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Catcher in the Rye; Mr. and Mrs. Bojo Jones.  The national zeitgeist, disestablishmentarianism, had trickled down by way of the paperback book rack at Rexall Drug.

I’d get grounded.  Then sprung.  Then grounded.  My parents didn’t object to jocks, but I knew them as mean, then friendly after dark, trying to take my clothes off.  Stoners were called heads.  “He has faraway eyes,” my mother said about a head whose mother had died.  “He has a sickly sweet odor like a spice rack,” she said about another.  She was paraphrasing the Warning Signs Your Child Might Be On Drugs.  I didn’t smoke pot, but I didn’t mind if people did.  I made out with heads, practicing kissing.  Like my sister and my parents, I knocked back alcohol.  Drinking erased anxiety and social distinctions.  My dad drank with people who were fun but didn’t have work ethic.  Heads and jocks drank together in hunting camps with bunkrooms: squeaky bedsprings, soft moans.

Then I met a man at the fair.

He was short with a grown-up’s head and shoulders.  If he’d been taller, he’d have been uninterested in a fourteen-year-old waiting to ride the Rock-O-Planes.  He worked for the phone company, repairing connections in the office, in people’s houses, on top of tall poles I noted with a sense of awe for his vocation as I rode down highways in my mother’s car.  He lived on his parents’ farm because his dad had a bad heart.  Meanwhile, my sister was pre-engaged, a friendship ring with a diamond chip.  This thrilled my taskmaster grandmother, who’d been single and considered a spinster until she was twenty.  My unhappy, wandering grandmother was sixteen when she first married for the first time, sixty when she married the widower who’d advertised for a wife.

I’ll call my elfin, muscled boyfriend Rodney V. Meadow, a synonym for his real name.

V is for verdant.   Life teemed with allegory.

On Saturday, I’d go to dinner with Rodney V. Meadow, who bought buy-one-get-one-free coupons to supper clubs—restaurants deep in the woods.  People arrived by snowmobile or in cars with tires wrapped in chains.  After dinner, we made out in his truck.

I wondered:  Were sperm airborne?  What did “vigorous swimming” mean?

I fell ill, wondering.  My mother, who bought sanitary napkins in bulk, said, “You’re moody because your period is late.”  One night in my bedroom, my alarm clock ticked on.  I gave up on biology and focused on plot—foreshadowing and upshot.  In our living room, with its imitation brass lamps aglow, Pledge-polished furniture gleaming, my mother’s face would crumple.  It had crumpled a few weeks earlier when one of my classmates got out of a car at school wearing a maternity dress hemmed as a mini.  My dad would pour brandy with one hand, hold his other over his heart as he did when he told you he was hurt (often) or grateful (rarer).  I’d cook for Rodney V. Meadow when he came in from the phone company, I realized.  After my baby became a child, I’d serve cupcakes at the elementary school.  Outside, dawn crept over snow-covered houses, and I sneaked to the phone in the basement to call Rodney and tell him we were getting married.  The moving around must have released muscles because I was instantly not-pregnant.

When I talked to him that weekend, he explained I couldn’t have been pregnant because we hadn’t had sex.  He knew because he and his dad sometimes hired a bull and watched it work.  He’d had sex himself, in the past.  He’d like to again, he added.  I couldn’t trust myself not to, I knew, and I didn’t want to squander another series of days and nights worrying how I’d feel moving to a squat house with hodgepodge furniture, or wheeling my baby through Super Valu as I bought meat, eggs, Comet, Gerber products, Windex.

In 1974, in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, The Pill was newly legal for single women.  I’d read this in Time magazine.  The decision about minors was pending.  I forged a “please excuse Debbie from school” note, walked to a phone booth, and called every doctor in the Greater Spooner Area.  Receptionists would say the doctor was with a patient, so I’d blurt: “Would he prescribe the pill to a seventeen-year-old without parental consent?”  Most hung up.  One said, “You should pray.”  Anonymous, I kept dialing.  Then a receptionist said, “Honey, Dr. X won’t, but if you call Dr. Y in Shell Lake, he will.”  I forged another note, and Rodney took the afternoon off to drive me to Shell Lake, where Dr. Y asked my real age.  I was fifteen.  I said sixteen.  The doctor seemed not to believe this either but gave me a year’s supply of pills Rodney stored in his tool locker.

Soon, my parents let me spend weekends in the Meadows’ spare bedroom because my mother felt farm chores were salutary.  Or she was glad I’d stopped dating heads.  One day, I drove the tractor while everyone loaded hay.  Rodney’s father clutched his chest and turned purple when, after he’d expressed doubt I was the right person to drive a tractor, I took a corner too sharp.  The tractor started tipping, one side of the hay wagon climbing a big wheel spinning in mid-air.  Rodney sprinted across the field, leapt to the top of the tractor, reversed it.  The tractor righted itself.  The hay wagon rolled back down, its axle and my life saved.  That night, Rodney’s mother told me that no one starts out as an expert.  We watched The Carol Burnett Show, and she taught me to embroider pillow slips.  My wandering grandmother embroidered.  The next time I saw her, I showed her my work.  She said my knots on the backside were messy—that the back should look as good as the front.  I embroidered on, and piling up pillow slips and towels, though, as my mother noted, they’d look ragged after one time through the spin cycle.

One night Rodney and I sat staring at cattails in a shallow lake, the radio tuned to a top-forty station hundreds of miles away.  For a moment, John Denver’s song about his ex-wife seemed like poetry—reasonable poetry for a man who hunted and fished, I thought, eying Rodney.  Night in the forestMountains in springtime.  Rodney could discuss these.  Maybe they filled up his senses. But he couldn’t take the next step and equate bliss in the woods with bliss he felt spending time with me.  Could I live the rest of my life never hearing words like these said to me?  I couldn’t.  But a day later, ironing my father’s shirts, I turned sensible.  Poetry was extravagance, I decided.  Everyone has longings.

During the short, dark days of winter, Rodney must have had his because he’d go to the bar after work and come to pick me up late, drunk.  It would take me ages to forgive this, though my sister’s boyfriend did it too, and my dad missed every second or third dinner the same way, and my gambling grandfather used to leave my taskmaster grandmother for weeks.  Once, my mother stared at me, sitting cross-legged on the console stereo, a coffin-shaped box with a turntable inside, as I stared out the window, waiting for Rodney’s truck.  She said: “That’s marriage for you.  It’s never our turn.”  It was her policy to forgive my dad his lapses because wives did.  He’d had a bad childhood too.

Then a teacher who wore narrow ties, not because they were in style, but because he’d never bought the new, wide ones, explained that impartiality is an ideal existing outside the toils of language.  “A selection of facts is partial,” he added, “partial as in incomplete, partial as in biased.”  He said I should go to a summer camp with students from fifty other schools, all between their junior and senior years—two weeks at a college a hundred miles south.  I’d stay in a dorm and take writing classes.  I paused.  I did the multiplication.  I was a misfit at Spooner High.  I’d be a misfit times fifty.  I said no.

He rolled his eyes and didn’t bring it up again.

Months later, false spring again, and I was walking to my after-school job, stepping through slush, wearing a pastel dress with my winter coat flapping open.  A southern breeze stirred branches flecked with buds doomed to freeze before they’d sprout again.  My desire exceeded my portion again.  I couldn’t face belabored spring, fickle summer, flashy autumn, immense winter, seasons moving and standing still.  I fastened onto a word I’d read but didn’t know how to pronounce.  Ennui.  Suddenly I started running, twisting my ankles in my sandals with plastic fruits on the straps.  I arrived at work early and phoned the school.  The teacher was already gone.  I tried his house, no answer.  His wife ran the register at Rexall Drug, so I went across the street and told her I wanted to go to writers camp, and I jotted this down, and she said don’t bother, she’d tell him.

That July, when I arrived at writers camp, my fears returned.

Then I faked that I felt at ease, and I did.

Some of the writers looked like heads.  Some looked like cheerleaders and jocks.  The cheerleaderish girls whispered that two girls looked like sluts, but I could tell the slutty-looking girls were just shy, from the same small town, and painted each other’s eyeliner on too thick.  I was nice to the eyeliner girls, to the cheerleader girls, and to a girl who looked like Carole King and quoted the Tao Te Ching.  I also made friends with a boy named Michael who signed his essays and poems Mikal. My Favorite Subject was every class.  My Hobbies and Activities were reading the assignments and staying up late to discuss them.  As days flicked by, a boy from Fon Du Lac stared at me across crowded rooms.  His name was Chuck.  He was my age but five inches taller than Rodney, I noted, disloyal.

At alternate future opened up, I realized.  Either Chuck or Mikal.

The night before the last day, Chuck and I sat on a bench, hands touching.  You shouldn’t have sex before marriage, I knew, but I’d long ago arrived at this variance: it was okay if you did with the man you’d marry because you’d die having had sex with just him.  So I’d reasoned until Chuck from Fon du Lac wanted to kiss me.  I stopped him as Jane Eyre stopped her wedding.  Except I’m candid.  Some people appreciate this.  Some don’t.  You never know which kind of person you’re talking to until after you’ve divulged.  Instead of saying I was practically betrothed, hence unavailable, I said I wasn’t a virgin.

I’d planned to marry soon, I added quickly.  I considered telling him I was on The Pill, because I wanted him to understand my life—that I’d been caught in the local pattern and found the safest way forward, but if I’d lived somewhere else I’d be someone else and still could.  Then he’d tell me he’d never met anyone so stalwart, so perfect, and we’d meet at college in eighteen months.  But he looked frightened and hurried off into the gloaming and avoided eye contact the next day.  That night, my parents arrived to drive me home.  They’d been confused by the whole episode—that I’d wanted to go, that I’d won a prize.  They were used to prizes for best jam or best football playing, not best use of figurative language.  We left, driving under interstate overpasses that seemed like cattle gates, one after another hanging above me as I passed through the chute toward home.

Rodney V. Meadow took me to supper clubs I used to like, to the farmhouse where I’d helped his mother make casseroles.  I couldn’t focus.  I had trouble kissing him.  He lost his temper and called me Miss Poem.  One evening he was waiting for me to come downstairs for our date.  It was early fall because my family, minus my sister who’d gotten married, had moved back to town.  My mother sat with Rodney on the side porch covered by trellises that made the room seem mysterious and stately.  But my parents wanted a modern house, so they’d installed orange indoor-outdoor carpet and bought avocado green slipcovers for the furniture.  When I got downstairs, I could tell my mother was in deep conversation with Rodney.  She said, “We would have liked for you to marry her.  But you gamble when you date someone so young.  She’s a girl, still deciding.”

That night, after dinner, he drove back to my house and parked in the driveway.  I told Rodney I wanted to go to college and we should break up now, as I began Twelfth Grade.  He started crying.  He put his hands around my neck.  I thought his message was that he could choke me if he wanted but he loved me so he wouldn’t.  He’d lettered in wrestling—he had a wrestler’s compact body, slow patience too.  My mother paced back and forth in the kitchen window.  As I spoke, muscles in my neck moved against Rodney’s grip.  I said, “I can’t help it.  I’m sorry.”  His hands tightened.  He still didn’t seem violent, just out of options.  He let go, then put me in a new hold, my head banging the dashboard as I rolled onto the floor.  He landed on me.  My mother had begun flicking the porch light on, off.  Then she stood in the driveway, rapping on the truck window.

One night, after snow fell, he waited in the truck while I went inside to get the framed high school graduation photo his mother had once kept on the TV but let me take home to put on my nightstand, and the class ring that had thrilled me with its size and unfamiliar date—I’d been in Eighth Grade when he graduated.  I opened the door and gave them to him.  He threw them into the snow.  My mother called me inside.  I watched from the kitchen.  She stood in the driveway in her bathrobe, shivering, talking to him. He slumped behind the steering wheel.  Under the halo of the porch light, my mother dug in snow and found the picture, which she gave him.  She looked for his ring but didn’t find it until the next day—guessing where it was by marks in the snow—and we mailed it to him.

He called from work, plugging a receiver into a random outlet.  He also called from bars, music clanging and drunken shouts as backdrop.  He called from the barn, cattle mooing.  He called from the tops of telephone poles.  He’d done this once or twice in the past when he’d be working late, thirty feet off the ground, a leather harness wrapped around his hips, boot cleats dug in deep, and say something cheerful, sweet.  But he phoned now to say, for instance, he was on County Trunk 71, south of Mueller Road, and go mute, waiting for me to volunteer that the last weeks had been a mistake.  After a few minutes of silence, I’d say I had to go.  He’d call back.  My mother started intercepting calls.  I’d hear her, gentle at first, eventually firm: “You need to accept facts and climb down that pole.”  We worried.  The wind whipped faster up there.  The sun had set.  The thermometer plunged.  He finally came down for good and dated a girl who’d been my sister’s bridesmaid and, my sister told me, called her my name when he was drunk.

I couldn’t go backward.

I sewed, making clothes from upholstery fabric because fabric at the dime store bored me.  I was lonely in high school, having spent my previous spare time carrying deviled eggs to phone company pot lucks, or hanging out with Rodney V. Meadow’s mother, once driving eighty miles with her to see a masseuse for her migraines, and we’d sat side by side in portable saunas shaped like washing machines, our heads sticking out.  Now I pretended high school was writers camp.  But students talked about how they held liquor, not how they shaped paragraphs.  I dated a boy who went to community college forty miles away, and he rambled in a way I didn’t understand, either because he was tripping or he’d read Rilke.  I made a bong in shop class, and I bought a baggie of pot my mother found.  She opened the door to the bathroom where I floated in the tub, offended she’d walked in.  She shook the baggie’s contents over me like sage over a chicken in broth.

Then my unhappy, wandering grandmother’s husband had a heart attack in their kitchen, and she ran out the door to tell a neighbor.  By the time the neighbor called an ambulance, my grandmother had keeled over, another heart attack.  We went to the two-coffin funeral, with the husband’s God-fearing and ex-con offspring in the first pew on the left side, my dad and his two brothers in the first pew on the right.  I sat behind my father and uncles, their shoulders heaving, bloated, stuffed with inexpressible memory.  And I understood for the first time that if someone you love dies you have sadness, but if someone you love dies and you have unfinished quarrels—lost chances, love you missed like a bus that left the station a long time ago—you have sadness, also helplessness and fury.

My taskmaster grandmother came to celebrate my graduation.  My mother bought me a typewriter for a gift.  Yet I’d spent the winter drinking, smoking pot, staying out until dawn.  I understood hangover recovery better than most subjects.  There’s a photo of me sitting on my taskmaster grandmother’s lap, though I’m too big for this, and I’m wearing a dress I designed myself, trying to look like a flapper, wearing a brooch Rodney V. Meadow’s mother gave me that belonged to her mother, a hillbilly flapper’s brooch made of paste and tin, something Rodney V. Meadow’s mother would never wear and I was welcome to it, she’d said.  So I’m a flapper, except it’s 1976.  In the photo, my grandmother—who did once dress like a rural flapper—looks proud.  I stare at the cake, queasy.

I’d started dating another farm boy.  I’d had sex hundreds of times already.  But this was my second lover.  “This can’t be your second time,” he said once, perplexed. “You’re too relaxed.  You move your hips like an expert.”  I clarified: “I didn’t say it was my second time.  I said you’re only the second person I’ve ever had sex with.”  In turn, I didn’t understand him, that emotion had been activated.  I’d been playacting since Kindergarten.  I also dated a boy who’d arrived for the summer and I liked him less than the farm boy, but the tourist boy had the exotic whiff of places I’d never been.  I failed to tell the farm boy I was dating the tourist boy.  But in a town so small people told the farm boy for me.  He broke up with me.  He said, “If you’re going to sleep with other people, and you’re maybe going to college, we should call it quits.”  I started crying.  He shook his head.  “Why are you crying?”  I was thinking about hours spent embroidering dish towels and pillow slips, the green fields dotted with wild mustard.  Verdant meadows.  Years.  Misspent?  I said, “I like you.”  He said, “I like you.  But that’s not going to fix this.”

I already knew that the two weeks when everyone shared notebooks and pencils and stayed up late talking about Keats and Emily Dickinson, also compromise and high hope, had been an idyll.  Real college had football players, business majors, and—I’d been for a two-day orientation—dorms that, full-up, felt like barracks.  I’d started to tip, one wheel spinning on airy prospects, the other grinding through mud.  Both worlds would be inhospitable, one an aspiring place where I’d be an amateur all over again, silenced, uneasy, missing my set of instructions.  Daydreaming would take me over.  Teachers would misunderstand.  Or I’d stay where I didn’t fit, but I’d feel superior.  Now which?

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