Feathers ~ 5
One morning, Ellen met Rupert for breakfast. She had spent seven thousand dollars since the beginning of the semester. She wore a silk skirt blooming with yellow flowers and a tight, high-bodice blouse. She brooded into her orange juice while Rupert sent an email to his ex-girlfriend.
“Should we split it between our cards?” asked Rupert, when the check came. “Or do you have cash?”
“I don’t want to split the goddamn bill,” Ellen announced imperiously. “Buy me another stack of pancakes.”
Rupert blinked, but followed orders. When he tried to borrow some of Ellen’s blueberry syrup for the drying crust of his waffle, she slapped his hand, and told him she wanted it all herself.
Ellen was going to the mall almost every day now. She woke up early so she would have time to set her hair, curl it, moisturize, apply makeup, try on clothing for half an hour until she arrived at the perfect outfit, and file her nails. Rupert objected to the alarm clock jangling at 6:00 am. Ellen told Rupert that if it bothered him, he might have to sleep elsewhere. Furthermore, it was difficult to select outfits in the dark, and she was not going to do it anymore. Rupert humbly purchased a sleeping mask. Ellen began to wake up even earlier.
Ellen’s credit card bill soared skyward like a lark intent on reaching the sun. She had little money except what she took out in student loans. However, she philosophized, fifty thousand dollars in debt was not so very different from fifty-seven thousand.
“Wow,” I said, months later when Ellen told me how much she spent on clothing that semester. “Seven thousand dollars, how long would that take to pay off? Let’s see, if you worked as a waitress and earned ten dollars an hour for forty hours a week, you’d have to work for, hang on, four and a half months -almost half a year!- to pay it off. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to pay rent those months, or buy food–”
Ellen told me she appreciated my concern, but to shut up.
At first, Ellen did everything she could to make Rupert jealous. Men stopped to introduce themselves now when she walked into a room. She was getting up earlier and earlier, getting less sleep. But Ellen had a fragile, hollow quality about her that made sleepiness beautiful. The circles under her eyes could have been painted there for a Calvin Klein ad. Even when she was sick, Ellen set her alarm clock an hour earlier and grimly dragged herself from the bed, to pluck stray hairs and exfoliate. Her eyes snapped towards the men she passed, like a hawk sighting a mouse. She had to make sure they admired her. They always did. She stored the admiration away in her soul, to live off of. If a room held both a mirror and a man, Ellen’s eyes danced a tough struggle between the two, but the man usually won. I became used to conversations in which she never looked at me, but stared just past my shoulder, watching her reflection in a shiny telephone pole, or a car window.
Eventually Rupert, who had been the purpose, became an afterthought. Ellen felt for him the vague, distracted affection one feels for a worn out toy, or a once-loved kitten. Her attention paid him a visit now and then, but Ellen had moved on to new and better territory. Rupert asked Ellen to be his girlfriend. Ellen said no.
A few years after I graduated, when Ellen’s debts had soared to $100,000, she dropped out of school and became a teacher. I visited her classroom once. In the faculty lounge at noon, the principal came in and invited Ellen to have lunch with him. She left, forgetting I was there. I was not offended. I knew Ellen would let me fall off a cliff for any man, but it was not really for the man. It was for Ellen who did not want to be hidden in the corner, for the birds inside her, struggling to be seen.