Piker Press Banner
February 19, 2024


By Beate Sigriddaughter

"For you," Alan said.

"Who?" Solveig frowned, put down her Morte d'Arthur and got up, not fast, to walk to his desk where he held out the phone to her. Wireless and cell phones were still something of the future. Alan knew she didn't like to talk on the phone. There was something threatening about them. Why hadn't he done something? Told whoever it was she had flown to the moon, for instance? Books were easier. The only good thing was that, usually, nobody called her in the first place.

"Don't know," Alan said in answer to her question. "Some guy."

She took the receiver still frowning. "This is Solveig Silverwell," she said with an inquisitive upswing of invitation at the end of her sentence.

"Dean Hammer from Stanford University," said a booming, friendly voice. She felt a jolt. "I have with me Boswell Goldfarb from the Goldfarb Foundation. We have good news for you. We're calling to let you know that you've been selected as one of this year's three recipients of a Goldfarb Foundation Fellowship."

Solveig caught her breath. "Really?" she said, already regretting her helpless inelegance.

"Really," Dean Hammer's confirmed to her, his voice touching her like vibrations of a kettle drum. "Our committee met today to select the final candidates. We wanted to let you know right away."

"Wow," she said, feeling foolish. "Thank you."

She felt heat crawl into her face, touching her skin with fine fire. She was also aware of Alan a few feet away from her, he being the reason for not shouting madly with jubilation.

"You'll receive your official notification in the mail in a few days. We hope you will be able to let us know within the next three weeks whether you will want to accept your appointment as a Goldfarb Foundation Fellow."

"Yes," she whispered. "I will. Thank you for calling, Mr. Hammer, Mr. Goldfarb. I feel so honored. Thank you so much."

"Our pleasure, Ms. Silverwell."

Solveig still felt fire under her skin as she put down the receiver. Was this what it would feel like to be breathed on by a dragon? "Yes!" she whispered in contained celebration.

She knew Alan had listened to every word of her side of the conversation, which was one of the reasons she hated the phone. Someone could always hear your end of the conversation, even when you turned your back to them.

"What was that all about?" Alan asked, curiosity all over his face, mixed with suspicion.

"Some dean from Stanford," Solveig said. Her heart still hammered with pleasure at the unexpected offer. True, she had applied; true, she had good grades. But the University of Minnesota, where Alan was now in his first year of graduate studies with a fellowship of his own, had not accepted her at all for some reason.

"They accepted me at Stanford," she said.

"That's nice," Alan said. "I guess."

"And they're offering me a fellowship."

"Oh," Alan said. He in turn had not been accepted at Stanford to continue after his completed Master's Degree, so he would have to stay at the University of Minnesota for his doctorate.

Solveig's head was spinning. It was possible, wasn't it? So they'd study in different parts of the country. They were still married. They were still companions for life. She still loved him, and she always would.

"So, are you going to ... go?" Alan asked cautiously.

"Yes," Solveig said, equally cautiously. She touched her burning cheeks with fluttering fingers. She looked into his beautiful gray eyes and found them full of pain. She looked away.

"I see," he said.

He didn't bring up the discussions they had had that, if they didn't get into the same schools, it would be her turn to support the relationship for a while wherever he went to school. But this was different, surely? A full scholarship with living expenses? They had never discussed that as an eventuality, because neither of them had expected it. Especially not after her painful interview with one scholarship outfit where she was asked numerous times what impact her being married would have on her career. She had not received an offer for that scholarship.

"Congratulations, by the way," Alan said when they went to bed that night. "You've done well. I didn't say much before, I know. I guess it came sort of as a surprise."

"Thanks," she said. She felt warm in his arms and, for the first time, genuinely proud.

She graduated eighth in her class in college. Three years earlier, Alan had graduated ninth in his class. He was the one who brought it up. It wouldn't have occurred to her otherwise.

In the summer he went to Stanford with her to find a place for her to live. Both of them were scared. He feared for her safety, a young woman in the world on her own, though Stanford turned out to be reassuringly university-dominated. She in turn was scared that, if she didn't find a suitable place, she'd be forced to abandon her plans. Secretly she also already looked forward to spending her spare time exploring nearby San Francisco. She was so excited about starting an academic life all of her own.

They returned to Minnesota until it was time for her to move. "Just for the semester," she reminded him. "It'll be three years at the most. And if you're done with all your course work before then, you can come and write your dissertation in California. We'll be together again."

He was studying history. She was planning to get her PhD in medieval literature, with emphasis on French or German, she hadn't decided yet. She already dreamt of spending quality time with Tristan and Ysolde, King Arthur, Parzival, and whoever else might show up. And she would even get paid for it.

Being a medieval scholar wasn't a very practical career choice, even for academia, but there was ample precedent of people making a living by conducting scholarship. She planned on being brilliant.

Alan's academic speciality was World War I and World War II, and the American experience in between. Perhaps his choice of study was a bit more practical.

While back in Minnesota for the summer, they gave a dinner for Alan's best friend, Ned, and Ned's wife, Andy. Ned was a history scholar like Alan, but a few years ahead of Alan, because he had lucked out on the draft. He had just nabbed a teaching position at a smaller college in Minnesota. His wife Andy worked as a computer specialist with punch cards at a time when computers were still a rarity and personal computers not yet on the market.

For one last time Solveig and Alan sat in their cozy one-bedroom garden apartment entertaining guests. It was summer, lovely, with the windows open and the bugs screened out. In honor of the occasion, they had bought slightly more expensive wine than usual.

After she moved to California, Alan would give up the apartment and move into a group house to save on rent, and she already had her efficiency apartment lined up in Stanford. Unlike Alan, she didn't like shared living quarters. For Solveig, living with a husband was challenging enough, and her absolute limit. "Hermit at heart," Alan had called her once.

Andy and Alan paired up in conversation and seemed to be happy with each other. For a while Solveig watched them while clearing the table. She envied their comfortable cheerfulness, wishing she could be part of it somehow. However, she had never quite connected with Andy, who, for no particularly good reason, always seemed to look down on Solveig.

Unfortunately this left Solveig, after the dishes were cleared and nothing else could possibly be done, to make at least an effort at conversation with Ned, not a particularly attractive prospect. For one thing, Ned was decidedly not in favor of women and their liberation. He seemed convinced, and typically quite vociferously so, that women's ability to think or do anything else particularly useful was limited at best. She'd previously been a bristling witness to conversations between Alan and Ned, in which women were summarily declared inferior in mathematics for certain, and many other types of thinking besides. Alan would wink at her now and again reassuringly, but still seemed to enjoy the slam-the-ladies conversation enough to not put a stop to it at her pleading entreaties with her eyes. How Andy could comfortably be married to Ned was beyond her.

"Why do you hang with this guy," Solveig had asked Alan once.

"Because he's my friend."

True to form, friend Ned now slithered into judgment about her imminent move to Stanford.

"Do you really think you're doing the right thing?" he asked, leaning forward into her space.

"Yeah," she said, leaning back. "It's a fantastic opportunity. They're paying for everything."

"Alan tells me your scholarship stipend is more than his."

"Well, yeah. It's California versus Minnesota. Cost of living is much higher out there."

Ned was handsome. Long dark eyelashes softened his lazy eyes. "Don't you think you are hurting Alan by competing with him?" he asked.

Solveig's muscles contracted. She felt heat flood her cheeks. Quickly she looked to see if Alan or Andy were listening. They were not.

"No," she said, her arms circling a defensive gesture. "I'm not competing with him at all. I'm just doing what I do well."

"You don't think it hurts him to have you do better than he is?"

"I'm not doing anything better."

"Graduating eighth in your class to his ninth?"

"He told you that?" Solveig was embarrassed.

"Obviously made an impression on him." Ned's eyes were intense slits for a moment. He seemed to enjoy himself. When his eyes widened again, he looked like a righteous evangelist sure of eventual triumph. You might be a lowly sinner, Ned's eyes said, but you could still be saved, and here am I, willing to show you the way.

Solveig shuddered. "He was just kidding!" she said with pretended confidence. Because Alan had mentioned it to her as well, she now felt insecure. Her class had been larger than his, too -- she had already checked it out, just in case his class had been larger and she could have cited that in his favor as a peace offering to his ego. But it wasn't the case.

"What do you think it makes him feel like to have you outdo him?" Ned asked again, his soft and indefinably hateful eyes resting on her. Hateful to whom? He was just protecting his friend. She knew that.

"Well, Ned, I know he doesn't want me to sit around like his mother, knitting and watching TV and reading romances and mysteries."

"How do you know?" Ned asked. "Maybe that's exactly what he would like."

Solveig was exasperated. Ned didn't know a thing. "He's proud of me," she said.

Ned raised his wine glass. "Drink to that?" he said.

"Sure," Solveig said, heat licking the inside of her chest.

"What are you two toasting?" Alan asked when their glasses clinked.

"Your wife's success," Ned declared.

"And yours," Solveig added quickly. "And Andy's. And Ned's."

"I'll drink to that," Alan said. "Andy?"

Andy's glass was empty and Alan filled it for her.

"Still, Robert Graves is right, you know," Ned said. "Women are goddesses and muses. As such they inspire us. Muses are always female. There's no one around to inspire women, not like they inspire men anyway." He smiled at Andy and Solveig in turn. The two women just stared at him.

Alan took Solveig to the airport.

They had made love the night before, she with a sense of owing him, he with a need to claim her body, claim her sex. She wanted to be more devoted to him physically, but she was already as though at least one horse-length on her quest. She couldn't focus on him at all, but he probably didn't notice.

There was construction at the airport, and she had to go through a pedestrian particle board tunnel to get to her gate after they had hugged their last hug and kissed their last kiss. She turned around several times to wave at him.

"I love you," she mouthed with tears in her eyes and excitement bubbling in her heart.

Alan looked lonely against the sky blue and rust background of the airport walls and carpeting. His lips were pressed into a benevolent smile under his blond moustache. She couldn't see his eyes, which was just as well. He raised his right hand and waved.

Alan came to visit her for Thanksgiving. She was glad, though she had a lot of reading to do. It could wait for a few days, and she'd get in some late at night when Alan was already sleeping.

Solveig hadn't made any friends; well, one, but she was a crazy lesbian, and the crazy part was not that she preferred women to men, but that she wanted to watch endless surrealistic movies for recreation. Solveig preferred to stay at home and read. She treasured her solitude. But she knew she was expected to feel at least a little lonely, so it was a good thing Alan came.

They both went to Alan's parents' place for an extended family Christmas.

Solveig sent Alan tulips for Valentine's day since roses were no longer available at the last minute when she happened to remember. He called to thank her for the roses. She was shocked at how little he noticed about some things in life.

Her school work went well. She finished her first semester with straight A's, which she by now more or less expected, so no great cause for excitement. Alan called a few times to report that he was floundering, listless, couldn't get a grip on himself to settle down to his studies, had lost momentum somehow. He said he missed her, but insisted that it was no big deal. Since she was celibate in her California setting, and so intent on finishing her studies as quickly as possible that she hardly noticed her surroundings, much less any young men navigating through the same classes she attended, it didn't even occur to her that he might fall in love with someone else back in Minnesota. Her earlier ambitions to take time to explore San Francisco in her spare time made her laugh now. That mythical spare time didn't exist. Her main entertainment aside from her studies consisted of inhaling the scents of a dozen sample vials of perfumes she had purchased from an ad in the Sunday paper.

As spring unfolded, at least in California, Alan called her less often rather than more, though he did tell her each time that he missed her. One time she thought she heard tears clogging his throat, but it was probably only her imagination, or even her own throat. She missed him, too, missed having someone to whom she belonged in the quiet evenings in her tiny square of a home that was covered with papers. She felt guilty for having left him to flounder by himself back home in Minnesota, where it was still cold and dreadful.

She continued to be inept on the telephone and never felt she had much to say. One day, though, they had an odd kind of argument during their call, she couldn't afterwards remember what about, and at the end of it Alan poignantly said, "Ned says to say hello."

That night she got drunk on very cheap beer. She didn't want to face things anymore. And it felt cute to have the bed spin around her after she had finished the six pack, sort of like the bed in the Perilous Castle, though no swords here to dodge.

Nobody believed, it appeared, that she wasn't competing with her husband. In fact, nobody took much interest in her at all, neither the professors, nor her fellow students, and when they did, it was by way of raised eyebrows when she mentioned that, yes, she was married and her husband was working on his own PhD back home in Minnesota. They simply didn't know what to do besides raise eyebrows and change the subject.

When she told her favorite professor that she considered not coming back in the fall, he didn't say one word of regret. That hurt. Maybe her brilliant academic career wasn't going all that brilliantly. Her lesbian friend didn't express much in the way of regrets either. Solveig was of no importance here at all. It wounded her, just as the thorny guilt over choosing her own life over contentedly playing second fiddle to Alan's life wounded her. How on earth were they going to find a job in a reasonably convenient place where they could actually live together, when they couldn't even manage to get into the same university for graduate school?

For a rarity, she called Alan on her own initiative to tell him that she was going to come back to Minnesota for keeps.

"Don't do anything drastic on my account," he said half-jokingly.

But it was all on his account, she thought, including her quest for academic recognition. She wanted him to be proud of her. "Of course not," she said.

She went to the campus counselor, but once there, she couldn't explain what her problem was. Maybe there wasn't a problem. Maybe she was merely abandoning a career that might not have suited her anyway.

She took a train back home to be able to slow down the distance between her past and her future. She didn't know yet what to call her new path. Defeat? Devotion?

Alan still lived in the group house, and she was uncomfortable about joining him there as a guest, but it wasn't going to be for long. She mostly withdrew to Alan's room, which she never quite considered theirs, rather than mingling in the common living room area, cozy though it was.

One day, looking for a pencil sharpener, she found some gold-threaded pony tail holders in his desk drawer. "Where did you get those?" she asked. "Planning to let your hair grow?"

"No." Alan blushed. "They probably belong to Lisette. She's somebody who came to visit Richard in the spring, and I let her stay in my room."

Solveig tried her best not to blush in turn at her own stupidity of asking. Now he probably thought she was snooping, and it wasn't even the mere idea of him potentially having an affair that hurt so much, but the idea of him thinking of her as being jealous or suspicious or feeling humiliated in any way.

Sometimes she drank a glass of wine or two at night to help her go to sleep. She liked wine much better than beer, despite the interesting spinning bed experience in California. After they moved into an apartment of their own again, she drank every night. She didn't quite know why. It wasn't as though she really needed to. It just felt pleasant. It also rubbed out some of the guilt she felt. Now the guilt was about having abandoned a promising career for a man, where earlier it had been about abandoning a man who needed her for merely a career. Whatever she did, she was going to be hounded by guilt one way or the other. Wine made her lose focus, which was good.

For all her belated loyalty, she lost Alan in due course anyway. There came a time when she did not want to burden him with her personal dissatisfaction and self-pity anymore. After some time Alan accused her of being weak for throwing in the towel rather than fighting for her own existence. For his part, when she rejoined him, his own lassitude did lift and he finished his graduate studies brilliantly. There was always also the nagging suspicion that that Alan did after all prefer to live with a pliable lush rather than a productive human being. To have to put up with a lush was perhaps more acceptable than to have an equal for a wife. She was afraid of being labeled either a masochist, or a castrating bitch. It seemed as though there really was no viable middle ground.

After Solveig left him, Alan went to Indonesia. "Had to go somewhere, do something," he would say later. "Was shook up." He helped, among other things, with setting up a school for girls of the not-so-wealthy echelon to rival the Catholic schools where their wealthier peers were allowed to pursue higher learning. At least he did something for women, Solveig thought.

Their divorce became final when Alan was still in Indonesia. He came back after a few years, due to an illness he couldn't shake, with a lovely new wife, Merpati. Yes, lovely was the word for her. She was a bright and beautiful young woman devoid of all ambition for herself. She, unlike Solveig, had been able to skip the phase of numbness and self-avoidance through drinking, and had moved straight from being a brilliant young lady to being a reader of mysteries and romances and a decorator of the home and an arranger of flowers. She knew how to entertain guests. She had come from the wealthier Catholic school background rather than the school that Alan had helped get off the ground. But one wasn't supposed to be prejudiced. So Alan ended up married to the kind of woman Solveig had once hoped to become. Lovely and spiritual. And beloved.

Would it have been better, Solveig sometimes mused, to just plod along without high hopes in the beginning? Like they say, servants who know their place and have no hope of jumping status are the happiest. Maybe that's all that women were good for, after all, mulch for men's growth.

In her dreams Alan would speak into a microphone: 'Yes, I loved her', he would say. 'I was afraid of losing her. She was beautiful, I thought, and smart, and I'd be a few thousand miles away. True, she was shy. But would she stay that shy without me around to keep an eye on her?'

Ned would stand beside Alan in her dreams, and add: 'Oh, yeah, I remember her. She was a blond little fluff, pretending to be an intellectual. With a name like Solveig, she should have stayed in Minnesota all along.'

One thing about drinking heavily was that it gave Solveig access to some of her anger, which in sober reality was out of the question. When drinking, she realized how wounded she was, not by having people actively hurt her -- but by having people not support her chance to grow fruitfully into who she needed to be.

Solveig floundered in respectable administrative jobs. Sometimes she had bursts of ambition, but only once, quite early on, did a prospective employer ask her why she was applying for a secretarial job with her academic background and potential. Through the years she drank a lot of alcohol for a variety of reasons. She drank red wine for its sheer beauty, though it sometimes gave her a bit of a headache. Food coloring did that, she learned in time. When the headaches got too frequent, she would switch to white wine for a while. She went through a phase of peach wine, too, which was delicious, then plum wine. She even tried mead, which would have gone well with her medieval studies.

During phases of drinking she sometimes remembered the first round of defeat, asking her older brother to take her along on a trip to the Grand Canyon.

"No, you're a girl." Then came his kindly afterthought. "Besides, you're too young."

As frequently happened with young girls, Solveig had started out more successful at school than her brother, Gunnar. Her SATs and GRTs were top notch. His had to be padded with personal salesmanship at various deans of admissions' offices. He had plodded through college, then a master's, then a PhD, and was now teaching business administration at a junior college.

Alan, with whom she stayed in touch loosely, reported to her that Ned had taken to cocaine, and he couldn't hold a job, because he didn't treat his students with enough business-like forbearance. He considered himself old school, believing that students shouldn't get away with getting a degree just because they paid for it. Still yet, the students and their tuition money were necessary to the college. So said the administration. Finally Ned was fired for running into problems with his female department head.

Andy supported Ned with her computer work, and she despised him. She had affairs that never quite satisfied her, including a brief one with Alan. So everyone had found their niche. Including Solveig, watching the reflection of light break in the jewel-red wine in her glass.

Sometimes she glided deep into acceptance of her lot, which always felt a little bit like death. At other times, in her dreams and forgetfulness, she still saw herself as capable of somehow making an important contribution with her life.

Anyway, nobody was waiting for her spectacular contribution to the world. Nothing was holding its breath for her. Only she held her breath as she dragged her heavy shell of a body through her days, more often than not blessed by the beauty of a tree branch laden with wind-blown icicles, or the sun glistening on water. There was always some extraordinary beauty caressing her. Sometimes, in her dreams, she had the courage to give herself to the world, with all her unbridled beauty and talent. And once she dreamt she was a red leaf laughing down a waterfall.

Article © Beate Sigriddaughter. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-08-29
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Myra King
12:14:35 AM
I loved this, such an insightful piece - this line particularly resonated: and it wasn't even the mere idea of him potentially having an affair that hurt so much, but the idea of him thinking of her as being jealous or suspicious or feeling humiliated in any way.
Your Comments

The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.