When Muffin’s grandmother arrived at Miss Pratt’s in 1903, she took the train up from New York, along with two other girls, three trunks, seven hatboxes, twelve suitcases, and a chaperon sent by the school to escort them from Grand Central. They were met at the station by the school stagecoach, and at the gate of Pratt Hall by the maid who was to help them unpack their things and redo their hair before dinner. When Muffin’s mother arrived in September of ’32, she took the train from Boston to Hartford in the company of her three best friends and her brother, who was on his way to Yale. Her friend Grace smoked a cigarette after lunch in the dining car. When Muffin arrived in the fall of 1960, the first thing she did was to search out the bedroom on the third floor of Pratt Hall where her grandmother had scratched her initials in the window glass with her diamond ring. Muffin wished she could put her initials in the glass there beside them, but she didn’t have a diamond.
Muffin had two secret sorrows in life. The first was her nickname; she would have preferred to be called Margaret or Meg. “Muffin” made her sound small and furry, or like something to eat. At Miss Pratt’s she soon discovered that everyone named Margaret was called Muffy, and all Sandras were Sandy, Louises were Wheezy (except for one Lou), and there was one girl each called Cibby, Gub-gub, and Peaches.
Her other sorrow was that she thought she was fat. She wasn’t, particularly. Her mother, after six children, still wore the same size eight she had at boarding school, and clearly thought an ounce of extra fat a character flaw. While Muffin had gained four or five pounds when she reached puberty, the truth was, most of the extra weight was in her bust. Muffin took to wearing Bermuda-length cut-off jeans and her father’s old shirts with the tails hanging out, and when she looked in the mirror she saw a strange glob of a torso supported on slim strong legs. She mourned the bony body she had lived in for three-quarters of her life, and instinctively fell into the habit of keeping the new one under wraps.
Muffin wanted anxiously to be popular — mwent on wanting it and working for it, despite all the evidence that she already was. Up until she was thirteen, she had been lithe and strong as any boy, and because she was quick-witted and a natural athlete, had always been much in demand with both girls and boys. Now she felt with despair that no affection her friends had felt for the coltish sprite she had been could extend to the unfamiliar thing she had become. When the boys with whom she had caught tadpoles offered shyly to hold her hand in the balcony of the Sweetwater Movie Theater, she pretended to be eating popcorn. Everyone knew that the fattest girl in the ninth grade, Peggy Higgins, had let Bim Burney kiss her breasts-everyone knew because he had told everyone practically as soon as the lights went on. Later, Peggy was hit by a bus and lay near death for almost two weeks, and the doctors said that her mountains of fat were all that had prevented her breaking every bone in her body. When that got around, it was the joke of the upper school.
Muffin went to parties, but only to dance fast to the Buddy Holly records. When the night wore on and her friends began to dance cheek to cheek and blow into each other’s ears, which they had heard was very exciting, she would slip outside by herself. To the night sky, while the honeysuckle night breeze turned the maple leaves till their backs showed silver in the moonlight, she spoke poetry.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain under
my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply;
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain . . .
Songs of experience remembered, quiet pains suffered in silence, appealed to her quite a lot. She also went in for long narrative poems about valor, sacrifice, and heroic accomplishments, mostly ending with the line “Smiling, the boy fell dead.”
She nurtured a fierce conviction that someday life would give her a chance to show her own unusual mettle. Of course the dramatic circumstances in her case were always translated by her from shipwreck or battlefield to the sphere of romantic love, since the question of whom she would marry, and when and how, was really the only wild card showing in the apparent straight flush life had dealt her. That she would marry, and that she would marry someone very much like herself and live the rest of her life in Sweetwater or someplace like it, was of course taken for granted. You would have to be deranged not to see that the life that was her birthright was the best America had to offer.
The life in Sweetwater was a life of financial and emotional security, a life in which health, leisure, and proficiency at games were the real and the ideal, and where good manners mattered more than good ideas. The depression had come and gone, barely noticed in the blue-chip preserves of Sweetwater Heights. The war was over and there would never be another; the president was one of their own, a good soldier and a Republican. There was little reason to suppose anything would change very much ever again. The only really devastating possibility that was given any serious credence was the threat of the Bomb. It was mostly joked about; no one in Sweetwater would be so patently elitist and unsporting as to build a private bomb shelter. No, if the Russians chose to bomb Pittsburgh, the members of the Sweetwater Country Club would take their medicine along with everyone else, content to know that when the dust cleared, God would find them in dignified positions and clean underwear.
The foregoing is excerpted from The New Girls by Beth R. Gutcheon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022