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The first time we make eye contact, she is tucked into the corner of a tenth-grade English classroom. Her glasses hang off of a freckled nose, buried in Ethan Frome. The sophomore literature instructor, who doubles as my literary magazine advisor, tells me that the girl is an excellent writer. I drag her into the first meeting of the year. She asks me, shyly, why do you do the finding? and the other members laugh while I saunter over to my editor-in-chief desk.
My boyfriend thinks I am being nice. He says you always did like to help the hopeless, his lips forming her name like that of a celebrity who died tragically young: what could have been, but never will be. Her name is similar to that of Mattie, the tantalizing young woman in Ethan Frome; I call her by her literary counterpart’s nomenclature more often than her own, because she really does love Edith Wharton’s novel, sticky notes scribbled with annotations peeking over the pages.
At homecoming, she stands sullenly in a corner, a recreation of every classic school dance scene from oversaturated teen movies. My boyfriend, who can be called only Ethan, pulls her from the side of the dance floor to come twirl with us. Her bare wrist looks sad against mine, which brags a blooming pink corsage, the hue matching Ethan’s boutonniere perfectly. I am dripping pity, throwing sad glances at him--
Ethan. She is staring at Ethan. He has a loose hand on my back, but his eyes follow her mouth, wet and plump, singing along to the music.
At the next literary magazine meeting, a laugh interrupts my reading. He shushes Mattie and continues having a private conversation. Later, when we are lazing in each other’s arms, I ask what was so funny? A moment too late, Ethan feigns confusion, and explains that he does not even remember laughing with her. I saw, though. A flicker of recognition, a spark before the lie.
I keep trying to remember that I am a real-life girl, a breathing woman. I keep seeing Edith Wharton around the walls, her white hair trim, tying ribbons around Mattie’s neck while my boyfriend stares at her red lips. Some nights it feels like she is holding my hand, an elderly palm pressed to mine, reading passage after passage from her novel, placing emphasis on the moments wherein Ethan and Mattie fall in love.
No one really wants to talk about Zeena, Ethan’s wife who is cold and cruel. The young boys and the self-hating girls, who are forced to annotate Wharton’s novel, typically despise the nagging woman and proclaim she deserved to be cheated on. I do not think anyone in my life is completing the physical act of cheating, but I understand intimately that, like Zeena, there is a plot unfolding that I am not privy to. There is a storyline that will make me into a jealous harpy if I try and insert myself. I attempt to banish these thoughts. I attempt to banish these comparisons.
(Of course, it’s too late. I’ve started talking to Edith Wharton when I lie in bed. People in literary magazine call her Mattie instead of her given name.)
At the next meeting, I read a poem of hers and treat it fairly. She is a good writer, especially in terms of tugging vaguely on the heartstrings; unrequited love is a hard subject to crack, since it is such a popular minefield for us poets, but Ethan gives her a round of snaps, Ethan gives her a soft smile, Ethan doesn’t have any critiques to give. She blushes all the way down to her chest.
When the staff meanders to the art room, Ethan and Mattie included, to find an accompaniment to the latter’s poem, I lock the door to our meeting room and dump out her bag. I find the red book, its cover cracked, and shove it into my desk.
No one ever wants to talk about the psychology of Zeena, either, because I would not know what to say when asked about the motivation behind my actions.
Ethan asks me that night, as we drive home from dinner, if I think she is pretty. Perhaps the kinder version of myself, who saw a wallflower with an unfortunate nose hiding in an English classroom, would have said yes out of some misguided sympathy. I flay her looks, from toe to the tip of her head, the scorch of my mouth burning my tongue. He asks if Mattie has upset me in some way.
I have rice cakes, razor blades, splenda packets, and a little black journal on my nightstand table. I have stopped eating. Each page contains black-pen scrawl of every calorie in my body. Ethan Frome is underneath my pillow. I drive home recklessly and tear out her post it notes. There is one placed over the ending where Mattie and Ethan plan to die together that simply has a heart. I stick it inside the cover of my black journal and burn the rest. I reread the arrival of Mattie until my eyes ache.
I can barely remember if she did something to make me angry prior, or if Ethan drew first blood. I don’t know who to be mad at, or if I have always been mad. My sophomore English teacher would be proud: I am not a brainless girl who falls in step with sexist men. I blame Mattie and Ethan. I feel bad for Zeena, who is made of bones and dry ice, but laid down with a man who will not love her. It isn’t fair.
At our next meeting, the girl asks if anyone has seen her copy of Ethan Frome. She looks right at me and I smile, sickly sweet, the muscles in my jaw mechanic. Ethan frowns at me. We read my poem:
lia mia no good catastrophe
with scarred up skin spilling over your jeans
how did you think you could please his brilliant anatomy?
After I adjourn the meeting, Ethan asks if we can drive her home before going out for ice cream. I am empty. They follow me as I walk to my car, Mattie shuffling into my backseat. I drive to her house on autopilot, and she asks how did you know where I live?
I tell her to get out. There is no way to explain that I have come here with Edith Wharton in my passenger seat late at night. Ethan glances over at me, frowning again. My heart begins to race. There are gray dots in my eyes. She asks again, but her voice is far away, like speaking to someone underwater. He turns back to say something to her. She picks up my black journal from the car floor. I think about how Zeena never tried to die--that was Ethan and Mattie’s plan--and I feel sick thinking how far we have deviated from our origins.
Ethan/Andy grabs my face. He is wild. He is asking me a question. Maya/Mattie places her hand soft on his shoulder. I feel tears dripping off my nose. He flips through the pages and starts yelling at me. He shakes my shoulders. I move my head, which feels full of sand, to see Maya staring at him, teary eyes, those pink lips in a perfect “o”. Andy tells her hey, hey, it’s okay, she’s fine.
The world slams back into place. I tell them both to get out. I feel Edith Wharton’s bone-knuckled hands on my shoulders. She is calling me.