The Little Women – Excerpt


The Little Women

Joanna and Amy left home in the fall of their older sister Meg’s junior year at Yale. Meg had already gone ahead to New Haven three days earlier in her car-the family’s old green Subaru wagon, which had been her Warren Prep graduation present (along with a trip to France). There would have been no room for Joanna and Amy had they wanted to drive up with her. The car was crammed to capacity with boxes and duffel bags and computers, Amy’s music stand (she played the flute), and also her art supplies, including the drafting table, the base of which took up an annoying amount of cargo space. Their three bicycles had been awkwardly tied onto the roof rack with the assistance of Mike the doorman, whose helpful intentions were as genuine as his knot-making skills were poor.

Meg had gone ahead, she said, because she needed those days to get started organizing the apartment, and also because of some confusion with her class schedule that required a meeting with her dean. Meg had driven away in the loaded old Subaru with a certain belief that she could not have survived being with her family for even one more hour. She never liked analyzing and speculating about emotions, her own or anyone else’s. A very reluctant passer of judgments, Meg did on occasion discover that she was deeply disappointed by some person or turn of events. At such times she grieved horribly and felt burdened by the gravity of her conclusions.

Although she had a reputation, both within the family and among her friends, as a good listener, Meg really had no idea of what compelled people to confide in her as they did. Too much information about other people’s feelings bothered her tremendously. What often struck people as wonderfully receptive and sympathetic listening on Meg’s part was, in actuality, inadequately conveyed distress, which she endured only until sufficient evasive chat could diffuse an overly intimate atmosphere.

Joanna and Amy, on the other hand, at almost seventeen and just fifteen, always loved a good dissection. They relished their rages. This had always been true, and was not merely a consequence of their being a bit younger. These differences in temperament had long created a bond between the two younger Green sisters just as it caused some distance between them and Meg. From the days of earliest school-yard controversies, Joanna and Amy had believed with all their hearts in rehashings, begrudgeries, tattle-talings, and creative vengeance.

One particular Halloween, the school year had gotten off to a particularly rocky start for Amy and Joanna. Their parents, Janet and Lou, concerned about unattractively pugnacious inclinations, had hoped to make a point by creating a mock, and mocking, family crest for the two littlest Green sisters. Amy and Joanna, in third and fourth grade at the time, were then gripped by an extreme Arthurian legend obsession, and they were utterly thrilled with the fancy nature of the ironic emblem that adorned the cardboard shields they carried to accessorize their matching aluminum foil suits of armor.

Meg went that year as a Hershey’s Kiss, a typically diplomatic solution that provided both a material link with her sisters’ costumes-each of the three outfits required some six hundred feet of heavy-duty Reynolds aluminum foil-and a conceptual distance as an unassertive piece of chocolate.

The twin mock family crests-designed by Lou, executed by Janet with great care, and, regrettably, taken with happy oblivious literalness by Amy and Joanna-showed a multi-armed, sword-and-dagger-wielding griffin perched over a small green house, with the motto emblazoned in carefully lettered mock Olde English: “NEVER FORGIVE, NEVER FORGET.” Joanna still had hers all these years later, tacked to her closet door.

It would not have been possible for Meg to nourish with her sisters’ kind of devotion the terrible disappointment she now felt toward her parents. In the past few days, Amy and Joanna had become so savage that they could say anything and hurt anyone while seeming to enjoy it, while Meg had just become quieter and sadder. Meg was not an indifferent person, and was in fact made sad very easily by many things. Certain heartwarming television commercials for office products made her cry. (Their mother, a woman given to characterizing pronouncements about matters large and small, always said Meg had a soft heart that melted like butter in the sun.) A glimpse of a beggar on the street could be Meg’s undoing for the rest of the afternoon. She had been known to empty her wallet for a homeless-or allegedly homeless-person on numerous and not always well-timed occasions. “Meg went out with the grocery money and no blindfold” was Green family code for those nights when scrambled eggs or take-out food was on the menu as the consequence of a Meg encounter with some convincingly pathetic soul somewhere en route to shopping errands. One suspiciously robust and persistently present character, who sat perpetually on a stoop on their block with his dog beside a ragged cardboard sign claiming late-stage AIDS infection and homelessness, had been so successful in extracting grocery money from Meg over recent months that everyone in the family had come to think of him as “Meg’s miracle bum.”

Their mother had an affair and they found out.

By the time they found out-a careless matter of a single incriminating e-mail-it had already ended. Who was he? He was Philip Hart, a graduate student in his twenties for whose dissertation-concerning obsession in the late novels of Henry James-Janet had been the adviser. That it was Philip Hart was especially shocking to Meg, Joanna, and Amy, as he was one of Janet’s cultivated collection of devoted, bright NYU graduate students, who, on countless nights, were invited to be part of the famously delicious and stimulating Green family dinners. Phil had struck them as so sweet and gentle and soft-spoken when he first came into their orbit the previous winter, so sensitive and funny, that the Green sisters had debated for weeks the question of his sexual orientation.

Henry Jamesish in his own ambiguities though he may have been (it was a small and bitter irony that the nature of his personal sexual desires should ever have been in doubt, let alone the object of now retrospectively mortifyingly detailed speculation on numerous occasions within earshot of their mother), he was a dear boy, the three sisters agreed, and Amy in particular had developed a small crush on him that had lasted many months. It was especially unfortunate that it was she who found the damning evidence on the computer in the study.

Home after an exhausting day of working as an arts and crafts counselor for six-year-olds in a summer program at the YMCA, she had merely been checking e-mail and then rummaging the family computer in an idle, mindless fashion. What she found was a beseeching message from Philip Hart begging their mother, his “little fuckbird”-yes, their own darling mother, a.k.a. Janet Green! Somebody’s little fuckbird!-the very same woman who had nourished them in so many ways, soothing their fevered brows with those same cool, slender fingers which had, apparently “inflamed the very core of” Philip Hart every time she “caressed” his “John Thomas”-not to break off with him because they were, after all, “in ecstatic cahoots” as no other man and woman had ever been at any previous time in history. He could not stop thinking, he further declared, about certain mutually experienced “midnight implosions”; to hell with everything and everyone else, they were meant to be together.

When Meg and Joanna arrived home from their summer jobs a short while later, they were stunned by the irrefutable meaning of what Amy showed them.

“It’s got to be part of something he’s writing,” Joanna said unconvincingly even to herself, grasping at this flimsiest of explanatory straws, after her first reading over Amy’s shoulder. “Aren’t these mostly some kind of literary references?”

“I don’t think you’re right, Jo-Jo,” Meg whispered sadly, from Amy’s other side. Her hand rested soothingly on the back of Amy’s neck. “This is addressed to her. It’s an e-mail. It’s not a big quotation from something, and there’s nothing here that sounds like Henry James, either. Except for the long sentences. There might be some literary references we don’t get, sure, but this is something personal to Janet from Phil Hart.”

“How can this be happening to us?” Amy wailed. “Are Janet and Lou getting divorced? I can’t stand it! I hate Philip Hart! I hate him! I want him to die! Him and his fucking bow ties. What if he has AIDS? What if Janet dies? Then if Lou dies we would be orphans! This is like something on television! I don’t want to be part of an after-school special.”

“Philip Hart was the one getting the after-school specials, apparently,” Joanna said bitterly, now having reread the damning message three times. There really was no other explanation she could imagine. “Did she answer this? Is there a reply here?” She reached over Amy’s shoulder and jabbed at the computer mouse, searching for sent messages or others from “[email protected].” (Philip Hart’s unfortunate elision would have provoked much mirth under other circumstances.)

“Nothing. No sent messages from her at all. Just all of yours, Amy. Here’s one of mine. Meg, Meg, mine, Amy again. No, nothing else of hers. Nothing else in the inbox. She either used her office computer or she’s deleted anything else on this one that was to or from him, I guess, except for this one message, and it’s dated, what, three days ago. Tuesday. What were we doing on Tuesday? So, wait, where did it go? It’s not in the inbox. Where did you find it, Ames?”

“In the trash,” Amy said sadly. “There were three things in the trash, and they were all Janet’s, but the other two were just regular NYU things.” Joanna relinquished the mouse and Amy clicked open the trash folder. “See, here they are. Blah blah the meeting, blah blah the committee.”

“Oh, honey, you were so bored you were reading Janet’s old NYU e-mails in the trash?” Joanna said. “We have to get you more good books. Did you finish those Maugham short stories?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Amy agreed. “It is totally pathetic. I had started to practice my flute piece, but it was just too hot and my fingers felt like sausages. I don’t really know why I did it, I wasn’t thinking about anything, you know? Don’t you ever just click around for no reason? Sort of zoning out, you know? Like reading a homework assignment from fifth grade when you find it in an old backpack, or like really, really reading all the insane personal ads in the back of Janet’s New York Review of Books? Anyway, the trash doesn’t automatically empty every time you shut down the way it used to. Daddy told us at dinner, remember, last week, the night you burned the couscous, Meg, you know, when Janet’s nonverbal Swedish student-with the braids, you know, the one in the beautiful blue striped shirt-the night she was here?”

“The D. H. Lawrence girl, yes, so, whatever, and I wasn’t the one who turned the heat up, someone else did, but what’s your point?” Meg replied impatiently.

“Yes, so, that was the night Lou talked about the article he had read in some journal. Whosis, Astrid, Estrid, Pippi Longstocking, what was her name? Anyway, she had accidentally trashed a chapter of her thesis? Remember she was talking with Janet about that? And that was when Lou said he had changed the settings on both computers in the apartment plus all of our notebooks so the trash isn’t automatically deleted anymore, because he read about some scientific laboratory where they save every day’s actual trash in different wastebaskets for a week in case someone throws away an important equation on a scrap of paper or something. So I deleted the trash like maybe four days ago, because it was full of junk spam like all those ‘Enlarge your penis now!’ e-mails, and now we have to do it manually-“

“Whatever, and I think her name was Astrid, but who the fuck cares?” Meg interrupted, having studied every word of the horrible message all the way through once again while Amy was rambling. “The trashed yet not-trashed message is here and we’re reading it. We get the picture.” She gave a small shudder and took a little step back from the desk, closing her eyes for a moment, needing physical distance from what she couldn’t help but read over and over.

“What are we going to do?” Joanna said. There was silence. “You guys? Hello? We have a major crisis here? We need a plan? Like, what the hell are we going to do?” They stared at one another for a long moment.

“Meg, you first,” Amy whispered, sucking on one of her knuckles.

“Nothing, maybe?” Meg suggested tentatively. She mentally calculated how many days remained of her summer internship at the literary agency, which she loved. Almost three weeks to go before she could escape back to New Haven.

“PhilHartPhilHartPhil, heart-fill, hurtful,” Amy murmured in the way she had of playing with words, often without even realizing she was doing it aloud. “FuckPhil. KillPhil.”

“You mean just act like we don’t know?” Joanna said dubiously. She couldn’t imagine this strategy working for an hour. How would they face their mother at dinner in a little while? And every day after that?

“Don’t you think that’s an option at least, Jo-Jo?” Meg, the voice of reason.

“We have to tell Lou,” Amy interrupted. “Oh my God.” She turned to each of her sisters. Tears streaked her cheeks. She thumped her hands against the sides of her own head in anguish. “Oh my God. God. God. God. He’ll want to kill himself. We can’t tell him.”

“Do you think maybe he already knows?” Joanna wondered, leaning forward to take Amy’s hands in her own and gently pull them down. She perched on the corner of the desk and swung a foot against Amy’s chair, rocking Amy slightly with each movement. She felt oddly detached and rational, not like her usual firecracker self at all, more like a scientist in a laboratory gazing at a microscopic specimen in contemplation of an experiment gone awry. “Lou knows Janet a lot better than we do, after all. And anyway, he’s not just going to do something crazy.”

“How do you know?” Amy moaned. “She’s been doing something crazy! Who would have thought Janet could do something like this? Maybe they’re both having affairs, I don’t know! And you don’t know either, Jo-Jo, even though you think you’re such an expert on everybody in this insane family.”

“Look, maybe it really does have some other meaning,” Meg said, attempting to start from scratch all over again. She hugged herself for a moment as if warding off a chill. “We don’t really have any way to know what it means.

Excerpted from The Little Women by KATHARINE WEBER © 2003 by Katharine Weber. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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