MAGGIE IMMEDIATELY LOVED ANYA LANDER, HER ANTHROPOLOGY PROFESSOR AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY, LIKE MANY STUDENTS DID. This was the first most important thing that happened to her at college. It was, in a way, her first chance in life. She wanted to please Anya. And she was an excellent student, but recently she’d fallen in love.
She was in love with Tony. He was ten years older than her and in a band that was going to be signed, she just knew it. Tony gave her hope, at least some of the time. And so did Anya. Anya radiated hope, as well as energy and enthusiasm and possibility. And Maggie craved hope. Her parents had died when she was seven. And her uncle and his wife, who raised her, never meant much to her. When she got the scholarship to BU, she left Indiana in a hurry.
The second week of the introductory course—which was a huge lecture with about ninety students—Anya Lander asked if anyone could volunteer to read to Caroline, a sight-impaired student enrolled in the class. The materials being used were not available in Braille. Anya (as she asked her students to call her) stood at the front of the class, looking out at the vast room of people, her long, curly, truly wild hair loose around her shoulders, a brown denim mini skirt revealing her long, shapely legs. And Maggie, sitting at the back of the class like always, felt her hand rise. Maggie could see the entirety of the students in front of her—no one else raised a hand.
“Great. We have a volunteer,” Anya said, smiling fetchingly. “Come up after class and see me,” she said to Maggie, her large blue eyes shining all the way to the back of the class. Maggie’s heart started to race. It stayed that way for the rest of the hour, thumping away, making her breathe with difficulty. She didn’t know why she’d volunteered. It had nothing to do with wanting to help a blind girl. Maggie wasn’t really that sort. Her immediate, yearning feelings for Anya were what propelled her.
When the class ended, Maggie numbly walked up to Anya Lander. Close up, Anya had acne scars, and her head seemed large for her body, but she was still a supremely magnetic person. Standing so close to Anya made Maggie dizzy. And now, here she was. She could practically smell her. One other person remained in the classroom and that was Caroline, the blind girl. She remained seated in the front row, a mousy girl—short, pale skin, unseeing blue eyes, dishwater brown hair unattractively shaped around her face. Her shirt was ill-fitting; in fact, it may have been put on wrongly.
“Thanks so much for volunteering to read to Caroline. What’s your name?”
“Maggie. Maggie Drescher.”
“Maggie, this is Caroline.”
Caroline stuck a hand eagerly in the direction of Maggie. Her other hand gripped a cane. “Nice to meet you. When can we start? I’d like to set up a once a week meeting. Let’s find out how our schedules work out and set something up. I’m very anxious to stay with the class. I don’t like getting behind in my schoolwork. Can you walk me back to my dorm room? We could figure out everything on the way there.” Caroline’s fingers closed on Maggie’s arm like talons. Anya Lander beamed at Maggie as she guided her new acquaintance out the door.
Caroline was very bossy during the walk, ordering her in a clipped, nervous way. “Turn here. Now go straight.”
Caroline’s grip was too hard. Later there’d be small, purple bruises on Maggie’s arm. Maggie said, “Why don’t you just tell me where you live and I’ll just walk us there?”
“No. No, that won’t do at all in this case, but for other things, that would be great. But for now, I need to always go the same route. I need to learn my way to every class because I can’t rely on people taking me around. I’m often by myself.”
“Alright,” Maggie said.
“Just getting to class is a big ordeal for me,” said Caroline, breathing an acrid, nervous breath at Maggie. “I’ll get the hang of it by the end of the semester. And then, of course, everything will change again,” Caroline snorted, and then barked sharply, “Now take a right!”
When they arrived at Caroline’s dorm room, a couple disentangled themselves from each other and sat up from the bed where they’d been clearly fooling around. “You could knock you know,” said the young woman, a chubby, dark-haired girl. The room smelled sweaty.
“You could go to his room for a change,” snapped Caroline. “This is Maggie. Maggie, this is my roommate, Shelley, and I assume her boyfriend, Michael.”
The couple said meek, watery hellos. Maggie couldn’t help but notice Michael’s erection pushing against his khakis. After she looked at it, she looked up at him and then at Shelley. They held her gaze.
“Maggie’s going to be reading to me for anthropology class, since none of the material is in Braille,” Caroline said. “I’ll need time alone here with her. We’re working out a schedule now. And once I give it to you, you’ll have to hump each other somewhere else during our meeting times. Got that?”
They ended up meeting once a week, at one in the afternoon, the day before the anthropology class met. Maggie’d knock on Caroline’s door, and Caroline would open the door for her—it took her longer to get to it than it would a seeing person. To her dismay, this bothered Maggie. She felt impatience rise in her as she listened for Caroline’s noisy approach. “Hi, come in, come in.” Maggie watched her walk toward the bed with its cheap, blue comforter and flowered pillowcases.
Maggie always sat on the floor below Caroline’s bed, on a thin, dusty white rug. She stayed an hour or sometimes more. As the semester progressed, it was often more. The small dorm room, crowded with two twin beds and two desks and two dressers, smelled bad. Often, Maggie would ask if she could open the window to air out the place a bit. Why did it smell? Was it just the smell of other people, a foreign body smell? Maggie’s boyfriend Tony smelled. He smelled like sweat and Speedstick deodorant and leather and like cigarettes, even though he didn’t smoke, because he spent so much time in bars. Maggie loved his smell. To her, it was life.
Maggie read to her from the carefully chosen Xeroxes: “In many narratives of human evolution there is a similar sense that man may be doomed, that although civilization evolved as a means of protecting man from nature, it is now his greatest threat.”
“Huh,” snorted Caroline. “I would’ve been dead meat back then. Left behind for the hyenas to eat. Thank God for civilization and its constructs.”
“I don’t know if I believe that,” said Maggie.
“You better believe it. The blind and the crippled, the retarded and the children and the old people—we’re not the fittest. The survival of the fittest, Maggie. Don’t forget.”
“I bet early man took care of his loved ones.”
“Pass that one by Anya. I bet she’d disagree.”
“Anya never disagrees with anyone. She lets everyone speak their mind. And then she just looks at you thoughtfully. Sometimes I don’t think she believes any of the evolutionary theories.”
“I know what you mean,” said Caroline. “So why does she teach this stuff?”
“I don’t know exactly. Maybe she’s such a great teacher because she doesn’t believe any of it.”
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Anya? Yeah, I guess so. Although she has acne scars. It makes her somewhat vulnerable. It makes her more human.”
“Are you beautiful, Maggie?”
There was something nasal in the tone of Caroline’s question; a mocking hostility.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“What do you look like?” Caroline asked. “Tell me,” she said, in her demanding, aggressive way.
“Well, I’m tall. I’m five eight. And I’m blonde and I have green eyes.”
“You’re not fat, that I know from touching you,” Caroline said, smugly. “I bet you’re beautiful. Yeah.”
Maggie felt ashamed. She felt her cheeks get hot.
“I’ve been told I’m not ugly. That I’m attractive.” Caroline put her hands to her face. Maggie looked up at her, this tiny unseeing person scrunched up against the flowered pillows of her bed. She couldn’t be more than five feet tall. She was pasty, as if she never was in direct sunlight. Her hair looked dirty. But she had a button nose and her eyes were a striking clear blue. She had large breasts pushing against her oxford button down shirt. She was not ugly, no. “I had a boyfriend at my old school, at my high school. I went to a high school for the blind. He told me I was beautiful. But he was blind. My mother always told me I was beautiful. But that’s what mothers tell their kids, no matter what. Not that I know what beautiful is, really, to people like you.”
“Where’s your boyfriend now?”
“We broke up. He started fucking someone else. A seeing girl. Can you believe it? He was very ambitious.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Screw him anyway. She was a snarky bitch. I knew her. She taught at our school. He gets what he deserves. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I do,” said Maggie. “But we fight a lot. We break up a lot. But, yes, I do.”
“What does he look like? Is he handsome?”
“I don’t know if I would call him handsome. He’s not very tall and his hair is thinning. But I think he’s the most beautiful person in the world. I can’t stop looking at him. I see him in my mind all the time. I guess that’s what love does. It makes the way people look unimportant. It blinds you, sort of.”
“Nothing blinds you but being blind, Maggie. You’ll never know what it means to be blind.”
“Of course not! I didn’t mean that.”
“Well, I guess if I can fantasize what it’s like to see, you can pretend to be blind. What the hell. Keep reading.”
“Alright. I’m going to start reading from a new piece, okay?”
“Whatever. You’re the one who can see.”
That night, Tony and Maggie ordered a pizza and watched a movie in his apartment. His roommate, a guitar player in another band, was out. They had the place to themselves. After the movie, in the near darkness of his room, on his futon, they made love. Maggie tried not to look. She tried to keep her eyes closed, but she couldn’t. She didn’t like it that way. She opened her eyes and saw his pale skin glowing in the dark. His black hair blending into the night, but separate all the same. He entered her and she gasped. His eyes were like a night beast’s, black and shining at her. She didn’t stop looking into them until she came, and then she couldn’t see at all.
Caroline listened at first, but as the weeks wore on, she mostly wanted to talk. Maggie felt rushed—she read quickly. Often, Caroline interrupted her. Maggie worried that she wasn’t doing her job properly—she worried what Anya would think. But Caroline was very aggressive. Very needy. She hated her roommates and wanted to talk about them all the time.
“They think I don’t know because I can’t see. So they fuck in front of me. I can hear it. The rustling of their clothes. The moist sound of their bodies against each other. I can smell it. I hate them.”
“Have you tried talking to them? Telling them it’s not okay to do that?”
Caroline’s unseeing eyes seemed to try and focus on Maggie. Funny, thought Maggie, this girl has been blind her whole life, but her face, her eyes, still appear to try to see. Caroline looked down from her perch on her bed, and it was her nose that really pointed toward Maggie. Her white oxford shirt was buttoned incorrectly and wasn’t very white at all; it was a grayish yellow. Maggie wondered if she should say something to her. She would say that to a friend, she would tell a friend, your shirt’s buttoned incorrectly. But with Caroline, she hesitated. She felt the rules were different. And besides, she didn’t feel like Caroline was a friend.
“Of course I talk to them about it! I start yelling at them to stop! I’m not one to keep things bottled up inside, surely you’ve figured that out by now. You know what they do? They laugh. They laugh and keep doing it.”
“Maybe you should try and get a new room.”
“I don’t think so. That’s the last thing I need, to try to reorient myself. They are the ones who should go. They should go straight to hell. Fucking cunts, both of them. Michael’s nothing special is he? I mean, I can tell from the way he talks. Once, he let me feel his face, too. I’m right, don’t you think? Nothing special, either of them. And Shelley’s fat! That I know!”
Maggie decided she hated Caroline’s roommates, too. One week, upon arriving to Caroline’s room, the two of them were there. Caroline wasn’t.
“Oh, Caroline’s friend,” said Shelley sarcastically, lounging back on the bed with Michael. It was the middle of the day, but clearly they’d been fucking. Maggie was like that with Tony. She wanted to fuck him no matter what time of day, no matter where, no matter anything. She was like them, she thought, her face growing warm.
“You know, Caroline’s really upset with your behavior.”
“Caroline’s really upset about everything,” shot back Shelley.
“Stop fucking when she’s in the room. She knows. She doesn’t like it. It’s cruel.”
“We don’t fuck when she’s in the room, not that it’s any of your business.”
“Somehow, I don’t believe you,” Maggie said, although her resolve was faltering. Maybe they didn’t fuck in front of Caroline. After all, Caroline couldn’t see, she couldn’t really know.
“Well, believe it. Caroline’s an angry bitch. I can’t wait until this year’s over. I can’t wait to live with someone who knows how to properly wash their own damn laundry.” Shelley’s face was red. She was standing now. “You try living with her. She’s impossible. She’s dirty, she’s mean. She doesn’t know how to properly wipe her ass and everything smells like shit in here. She’s always fucking angry. You try it. Oh, and she’s not here today. She went home. Her mother came to get her. She won’t be back until next week.”
The semester was coming to an end. Tony broke up with Maggie, this time it seemed for good, although it wasn’t and it wouldn’t be for another year or so, not until many more breakups happened would it be for good. Maggie’s grades dropped. Most of her professors didn’t notice, but Anya did. At the year-end conference, Anya asked Maggie, “What’s going on, Maggie? You haven’t handed in your last paper. And the last in-class exam of yours was a bit of a disappointment. As you know, I gave you an A because there was nothing wrong with your exam, but it lacked that special brilliance you always deliver. You have such a gift, Maggie, do you know that? I hate to think you would squander it.” She looked at Maggie quizzically, but with some disappointment, some sternness. “A gift like yours is only something if you use it, otherwise you may as well not have it, and sadly, you can’t just give it to someone else, can you? Is reading to Caroline interfering with your work in any way? I wanted to ask how that was going. I think it’s so wonderful that you’re doing it.” Anya sat behind her desk, her elbows jutting out neatly, her slim, beautiful hands laying delicately on top of each other, the frizzy strands of her hair sparkling around her head. Suddenly, the late spring’s sun flowed in through a window behind the desk and flooded the room with warmth. Maggie flushed. Anya was looking straight at her, with concern. With a detached, professional concern, but with genuine concern.
“My boyfriend broke up with me,” Maggie sobbed, much to her shame. She put her head in her hands and cried noisily and wetly. How could it be? How could he not love her like she loved him? He told her, you’ll still be beautiful in your thirties. In your forties. You’ll be my beautiful wife. He had told her, his dick inside of her, still warm, we’ll have children together. Laying on top of her, his thin, small body barely covering her own, his head hanging down next to her ear, we’ll have six children. And grandchildren. He pulled out of her and it hurt. Not physically, but it hurt, left her empty. She wanted him inside her always. He stood, naked and so white before her, his black, Italian eyes staring straight into her. And she’d believed him. And she’d never, ever felt so loved, not even as a child. He loved her, in that moment. In that moment, he loved her for the rest of her life. And the next day, he wouldn’t return her phone call. Or the next. Or the next.
What more could he want, if she gave him everything? She let him fuck her in the ass. She let him have everything she had. She had ripped open her chest and delivered him her red, bleeding, pumping heart. And now, there was nothing left of her.
“Sorry about last week,” Caroline said the following week, upon Maggie’s arrival. “I should have called you. My mom had some time off and surprised me by coming down.”
“I’m miserable to be back. I have to get rid of Shelley. She’s the goddamn devil. But the year is ending soon. I guess I should just wait it out. Do you have any roommates?”
“Do you like them?
“No, not really. But we all pay the rent on time. And we have a nice apartment for very little money so I can’t imagine any of us ever giving that up. But no, I don’t like them. They’re very spoiled.”
Caroline smiled, looking off into the center of the room. “I’m spoiled. My mother spoils me. She always did everything she could for me. She gave me everything I needed. She’d go to the end of the earth for me.”
“Yeah, but …”
“But I’m blind?”
Maggie was quiet for a moment. She hated when Caroline finished her sentences, like she had some kind of sixth sense. She’d hate living with Caroline, too, if that’s what Caroline was looking for. Suddenly, Maggie was scared. What if Caroline wanted to live with her? Never, thought Maggie, to her shame.
“Just yesterday, Shelley came in and I knew Michael was with her. I said hi to both of them and Shelley said, Michael’s not here. I said, yes he is. I heard four footsteps come in. Then they start fooling around. I can hear the slight rustling, you know? I can smell the mustiness of her cunt. So I start toward them. I was just so angry, you know. I wanted to pull them apart, rip them apart. And Shelley’s laughing, moving so quickly—Michael, too—that I can’t grab them. The whole time I was yelling, I know you’re here! I know what you are doing! And I was falling over the furniture, trying to grab them. They just laughed at me. And then they ran out.”
“That is so awful, Caroline.”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
“Do your roommates do shit like that to you?”
“Well, not like that.” Maggie thought for a moment. “I have two roommates. I don’t really like them. But we’re not that nasty to each other, either. Listen, Caroline, I better start reading. It’s getting late.” She felt bad saying it. But it was true.
She read: “Although we usually fail to think of it in this way, the world around us today is just one of countless possible worlds. The millions of species of plants, animals, and insects we see around us are the expression of myriad interacting processes, including chance—perhaps especially chance. At any point in its prehistory, a species might just as easily have taken a different direction, given a slightly altered confluence of events, thus leaving today’s world a slightly different place.”
A year later, on a particularly freezing, windy day in March, Maggie was walking down Commonwealth Avenue toward a class that she didn’t really care about. She hadn’t mustered up the emotion to care about anthropology, or anything really, in quite some time at that point. Even Anya Lander held no power for Maggie. Anya! Who once meant so much to her. Who cared for her and seemed to lead the way for Maggie when she was a new student, a new person in Boston. Maggie saw Anya in class, a seminar on the history of science, but that was it. The wind blew viciously, cruelly, as if full of hate. Maggie wore red high heel boots and jeans and a short motorcycle jacket, the jacket that once belonged to Tony. Her head was uncovered and her thin, blonde hair whipped in the wind. She was shivering large, spastic shivers, her hands shoved deep in the cold animal hide of her coat. She was deeply hungover. She’d taken to getting very drunk and having sex with just about anybody, as many nights as she could.
Caroline came walking toward her, alone, tap tapping her cane, her face purple-red with the cold, and perhaps fear. Her coat was buttoned wrongly, as her shirts often were when Maggie read to her, now a year ago. They had not been in touch since then, even though Maggie had promised to stay in touch, to call or write letters that Caroline’s mother would then read to her. The wind blew fiercely and Caroline hovered, as if she were about to fall. It had been so long since Maggie had seen her. Maggie dug her chin down into her neck to brace herself against the wind, but it didn’t help. Nothing did.
This was her chance. As the two young women approached each other, a great gust of wind sang in Maggie’s ridiculously uncovered, raw ears. It was a searing noise, high-pitched and unearthly, like a band of desperate angels screeching to be heard. The noise penetrated the cold, superceded it, and gave Maggie a sharp, abrupt headache.
They were both alone, walking toward each other, in opposite directions. This was her chance to help a blind girl through an impossible day, through one moment of a horrible, horrible day. Or, Maggie could walk right by her, and Caroline would never know. Would she? Maggie slowed down, her mouth began to open. Caroline slowed down too, her eyes darting around, panicked and searching. Could she sense her, could Caroline sense her?
Once, when Maggie was still reading to Caroline, they went out for coffee. As Caroline and she left the room, instead of grabbing her cane that was propped against the door, she reached for Maggie. Maggie had stiffened. It shamed her that she stiffened, but she just did. It was involuntary. And then Caroline said, “People don’t want to help me because they think I don’t need it, or they think it’s condescending or something.” Maggie had felt that way, felt that it would be obsequious, or belittling, to offer to guide the girl. Caroline was so proud. So off-putting. “But I want the help. I want people to guide me sometimes. I want a break from trying, from being afraid of what’s out there, a break from all the things that want to hit me in the face. I’m alone in my world and I can’t see. I need help.” Maggie had loosened her arm by then, her initial stiffening giving way, and Caroline, sensing that, grabbed it all the more roughly. Maggie would do her best to guide her through the streets, but she worried. What if Caroline still bumped into something? What if Maggie didn’t guide her as smoothly as she should? What if a crack in the sidewalk made her trip, a crack Maggie didn’t see? It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. To Maggie, and to Caroline as well, thought Maggie, as the blind girl’s face was screwed up in disappointment and resentment already.
Maggie stepped toward the curb. Commonwealth Avenue was full of cars. She couldn’t cross. She couldn’t escape. She could only pass her, face her really, face her, but not, because Caroline couldn’t see Maggie. Digging her chin even deeper into the rough collar of her coat, she stomped by the blind girl.
It was the cold, thought Maggie, it was just too cold to be bothered with anyone, she told herself. But that wasn’t true, and she knew it. In that moment, she had passed up a gift. A chance, a real chance—to grow, to regain her love—it flew up in a mad gust of air and disappeared into the frigid and howling Boston sky.
Emily Gould: What surprised you, if anything, about reaction to Nine Months? Paula Bomer: Well, I wasn’t surprised to get that one-star review that was like “this is disgusting!” A friend of mine checked out all the other books that person read and they were all, like, bodice-rippers. So that’s just not my audience, and I’m fine with that person thinking it’s disgusting. And I got a lot of “the narrator’s not sympathetic,” which I’m not surprised by, because it took me ten years to sell this book, and it was mostly because all these agents and editors didn’t find the character sympathetic enough.Read more.