The Bell Jar

Chapter 6

I had kept begging Buddy to show me some really interesting hospital sights, so one Friday I cut all my classes and came down for a long week-end and he gave me the works.

I started out by dressing in a white coat and sitting on a tall stool in a room with four cadavers, while Buddy and his friends cut them up. These cadavers were so unhuman-looking they didn’t bother me a bit. They had stiff, leathery, purple-black skin and they smelt like old pickle jars.

After that, Buddy took me out into a hall where they had some big glass bottles full of babies that had died before they were born. The baby in the first bottle had a large white head bent over a tiny curled-up body the size of a frog. The baby in the next bottle was bigger and the baby next to that one was bigger still and the baby in the last bottle was the size of a normal baby and he seemed to be looking at me and smiling a little piggy smile.

I was quite proud of the calm way I stared at all these gruesome things. The only time I jumped was when I leaned my elbow on Buddy’s cadaver’s stomach to watch him dissect a lung. After a minute or two I felt this burning sensation in my elbow and it occurred to me the cadaver might just be half alive since it was still warm, so I leapt off my stool with a small exclamation. Then Buddy explained the burning was only from the pickling fluid, and I sat back in my old position.

In the hour before lunch Buddy took me to a lecture on sickle cell anaemia and some other depressing diseases, where they wheeled sick people out on to the platform and asked them questions and then wheeled them off and showed coloured slides.

One slide I remember showed a beautiful laughing girl with a black mole on her cheek. “Twenty days after that mole appeared the girl was dead,” the doctor said, and everybody went very quiet for a minute and then the bell rang, so I never really found out what the mole was or why the girl died.

In the afternoon we went to see a baby born.

First we found a linen closet in the hospital corridor where Buddy took out a white mask for me to wear and some gauze.

A tall fat medical student, big as Sidney Greenstreet, lounged nearby, watching Buddy wind the gauze round and round my head until my hair was completely covered and only my eyes peered out over the white mask.

The medical student gave an unpleasant little snicker. “At least your mother loves you,” he said.

I was so busy thinking how very fat he was and how unfortunate it must be for a man and especially a young man to be fat, because what woman could stand leaning over that big stomach to kiss him, that I didn’t immediately realize what this student had said to me was an insult. By the time I figured he must consider himself quite a fine fellow and had thought up a cutting remark about how only a mother loves a fat man, he was gone.

Buddy was examining a queer wooden plaque on the wall with a row of holes in it, starting from a hole about the size of a silver dollar and ending with one the size of a dinner-plate.

“Fine, fine,” he said to me. “There’s somebody about to have a baby this minute.”

At the door of the delivery room stood a thin, stoop-shouldered medical student Buddy knew.

“Hello, Will,” Buddy said. “Who’s on the job?”

“I am,” Will said gloomily, and I noticed little drops of sweat beading his high pale forehead. “I am, and it’s my first.”

Buddy told me Will was a third-year man and had to deliver eight babies before he could graduate.

Then we noticed a bustle at the far end of the hall and some men in lime-green coats and skull-caps and a few nurses came moving towards us in a ragged procession wheeling a trolley with a big white lump on it.

“You oughtn’t to see this,” Will muttered in my ear. “You’ll never want to have a baby if you do. They oughtn’t to let women watch. It’ll be the end of the human race.”

Buddy and I laughed, and then Buddy shook Will’s hand and we all went into the room.

I was so struck by the sight of the table where they were lifting the woman I didn’t say a word. It looked like some awful torture table, with these metal stirrups sticking up in mid-air at one end and all sorts of instruments and wires and tubes I couldn’t make out properly at the other.

Buddy and I stood together by the window, a few feet away from the woman, where we had a perfect view.

The woman’s stomach stuck up so high I couldn’t see her face or the upper part of her body at all. She seemed to have nothing but an enormous spider-fat stomach and two little ugly spindly legs propped in the high stirrups, and all the time the baby was being born she never stopped making this unhuman whooing noise.

Later Buddy told me the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain and that when she swore and groaned she really didn’t know what she was doing because she was in a kind of twilight sleep.

I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn’t groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.

The head doctor, who was supervising Will, kept saying to the woman, “Push down, Mrs Tomolillo, push down, that’s a good girl, push down,” and finally through the split, shaven place between her legs, lurid with disinfectant, I saw a dark fuzzy thing appear.

“The baby’s head,” Buddy whispered under cover of the woman’s groans.

But the baby’s head stuck for some reason, and the doctor told Will he’d have to make a cut. I heard the scissors close on the woman’s skin like cloth and the blood began to run down—a fierce, bright red. Then all at once the baby seemed to pop out into Will’s hands, the colour of a blue plum and floured with white stuff and streaked with blood, and Will kept saying, “I’m going to drop it, I’m going to drop it, I’m going to drop it,” in a terrified voice.

“No, you’re not,” the doctor said, and took the baby out of Will’s hands and started massaging it, and the blue colour went away and the baby started to cry in a lorn, croaky voice and I could see it was a boy.

The first thing that baby did was pee in the doctor’s face. I told Buddy later I didn’t see how that was possible, but he said it was quite possible, though unusual, to see something like that happen.

As soon as the baby was born the people in the room divided up into two groups, the nurses tying a metal dog-tag on the baby’s wrist and swabbing its eyes with cotton on the end of a stick and wrapping it up and putting it in a canvas-sided cot, while the doctor and Will started sewing up the woman’s cut with a needle and a long thread.

I think somebody said, “It’s a boy, Mrs Tomolillo,” but the woman didn’t answer or raise her head.

“Well, how was it?” Buddy asked with a satisfied expression as we walked across the green quadrangle to his room.

“Wonderful,” I said. “I could see something like that every day.”

I didn’t feel up to asking him if there were any other ways to have babies. For some reason the most important thing to me was actually seeing the baby come out of you yourself and making sure it was yours. I thought if you had to have all that pain anyway you might just as well stay awake.

I had always imagined myself hitching up on to my elbows on the delivery table after it was all over—dead white, of course, with no make-up and from the awful ordeal, but smiling and radiant, with my hair down to my waist, and reaching out for my first little squirmy child and saying its name, whatever it was.

“Why was it all covered with flour?” I asked then, to keep the conversation going, and Buddy told me about the waxy stuff that guarded the baby’s skin.

When we were back in Buddy’s room, which reminded me of nothing so much as a monk’s cell, with its bare walls and bare bed and bare floor and the desk loaded with Gray’s Anatomy and other thick gruesome books, Buddy lit a candle and uncorked a bottle of Dubonnet. Then we lay down side by side on the bed and Buddy sipped his wine while I read aloud “somewhere I have never travelled” and other poems from a book I’d brought.

Buddy said he figured there must be something in poetry if a girl like me spent all her days over it, so each time we met I read him some poetry and explained to him what I found in it. It was Buddy’s idea. He always arranged our week-ends so we’d never regret wasting our time in any way. Buddy’s father was a teacher, and I think Buddy could have been a teacher as well, he was always trying to explain things to me and introduce me to new knowledge.

Suddenly, after I finished a poem, he said, “Esther, have you ever seen a man?”

The way he said it I knew he didn’t mean a regular man or a man in general, I knew he meant a man naked.

“No,” I said. “Only statues.”

“Well, don’t you think you would like to see me?”

I didn’t know what to say. My mother and my grandmother had started hinting around to me a lot lately about what a fine, clean boy Buddy Willard was, coming from such a fine, clean family, and how everybody at church thought he was a model person, so kind to his parents and to older people, as well as so athletic and so handsome and so intelligent.

All I’d heard about, really, was how fine and clean Buddy was and how he was the kind of person a girl should stay fine and clean for. So I didn’t really see the harm in anything Buddy would think up to do.

“Well, all right, I guess so,” I said.

I stared at Buddy while he unzipped his chino pants and took them off and laid them on a chair and then took off his underpants that were made of something like nylon fishnet.

“They’re cool,” he explained, “and my mother says they wash easily.”

Then he just stood there in front of me and I kept on staring at him. The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed.

Buddy seemed hurt I didn’t say anything. “I think you ought to get used to me like this,” he said. “Now let me see you.”

But undressing in front of Buddy suddenly appealed to me about as much as having my Posture Picture taken at college, where you have to stand naked in front of a camera, knowing all the time that a picture of you stark naked, both full view and side view, is going into the college gym files to be marked A B C or D depending on how straight you are.

“Oh, some other time,” I said.

“All right.” Buddy got dressed again.

Then we kissed and hugged a while and I felt a little better. I drank the rest of the Dubonnet and sat cross-legged at the end of Buddy’s bed and asked for a comb. I began to comb my hair down over my face so Buddy couldn’t see it. Suddenly I said, “Have you ever had an affair with anyone, Buddy?”

I don’t know what made me say it, the words just popped out of my mouth. I never thought for one minute that Buddy Willard would have an affair with anyone. I expected him to say, “No, I have been saving myself for when I get married to somebody pure and a virgin like you”.

But Buddy didn’t say anything, he just turned pink.

“Well, have you?”

“What do you mean, an affair?” Buddy asked then in a hollow voice.

“You know, have you ever gone to bed with anyone?” I kept rhythmically combing the hair down over the side of my face nearest to Buddy, and I could feel the little electric filaments clinging to my hot cheeks and I wanted to shout, “Stop, stop, don’t tell me, don’t say anything.” But I didn’t, I just kept still.

“Well, yes, I have,” Buddy said finally.

I almost fell over. From the first night Buddy Willard kissed me and said I must go out with a lot of boys, he made me feel I was much more sexy and experienced than he was and that everything he did like hugging and kissing and petting was simply what I made him feel like doing out of the blue, he couldn’t help it and didn’t know how it came about.

Now I saw he had only been pretending all this time to be so innocent.

“Tell me about it.” I combed my hair slowly over and over, feeling the teeth of the comb dig into my cheek at every stroke. “Who was it?”

Buddy seemed relieved I wasn’t angry. He even seemed relieved to have somebody to tell about how he was seduced.

Of course, somebody had seduced Buddy, Buddy hadn’t started it and it wasn’t really his fault. It was this waitress at the hotel he worked at as a busboy the last summer on Cape Cod. Buddy had noticed her staring at him queerly and shoving her breasts up against him in the confusion of the kitchen, so finally one day he asked her what the trouble was and she looked him straight in the eye and said, “I want you.”

“Served up with parsley?” Buddy had laughed innocently.

“No,” she had said. “Some night.”

And that’s how Buddy had lost his pureness and his virginity.

At first I thought he must have slept with the waitress only the once, but when I asked how many times, just to make sure, he said he couldn’t remember but a couple of times a week for the rest of the summer. I multiplied three by ten and got thirty, which seemed beyond all reason.

After that something in me just froze up.

Back at college I started asking a senior here and a senior there what they would do if a boy they knew suddenly told them he’d slept thirty times with some slutty waitress one summer, smack in the middle of knowing them. But these seniors said most boys were like that and you couldn’t honestly accuse them of anything until you were at least pinned or engaged to be married.

Actually, it wasn’t the idea of Buddy sleeping with somebody that bothered me. I mean I’d read about all sorts of people sleeping with each other, and if it had been any other boy I would merely have asked him the most interesting details, and maybe gone out and slept with somebody myself just to even things up, and then thought no more about it.

What I couldn’t stand was Buddy’s pretending I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitress and must have felt like laughing in my face.

“What does your mother think about this waitress?” I asked Buddy that week-end.

Buddy was amazingly close to his mother. He was always quoting what she said about the relationship between a man and a woman, and I knew Mrs Willard was a real fanatic about virginity for men and women both. When I first went to her house for supper she gave me a queer, shrewd, searching look, and I knew she was trying to tell whether I was a virgin or not.

Just as I thought, Buddy was embarrassed. “Mother asked me about Gladys,” he admitted.

“Well, what did you say?”

“I said Gladys was free, white and twenty-one.”

Now I knew Buddy would never talk to his mother as rudely as that for my sake. He was always saying how his mother said, “What a man wants is a mate and what a woman wants is infinite security,” and, “What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from,” until it made me tired.

Every time I tried to argue, Buddy would say his mother still got pleasure out of his father and wasn’t that wonderful for people their age, it must mean she really knew what was what.

Well, I had just decided to ditch Buddy Willard for once and for all, not because he’d slept with that waitress but because he didn’t have the honest guts to admit it straight off to everybody and face up to it as part of his character, when the phone in the hall rang and somebody said in a little knowing singsong, “It’s for you, Esther, it’s from Boston.”

I could tell right away something must be wrong, because Buddy was the only person I knew in Boston, and he never called me long distance because it was so much more expensive than letters. Once, when he had a message he wanted me to get almost immediately, he went all round his entry at medical school asking if anybody was driving up to my college that week-end, and sure enough, somebody was, so he gave them a note for me and I got it the same day. He didn’t even have to pay for a stamp.

It was Buddy all right. He told me that the annual fall chest X-ray showed he had caught TB and he was going off on a scholarship for medical students who caught TB to a TB place in the Adirondacks. Then he said I hadn’t written since that last week-end and he hoped nothing was the matter between us, and would I please try to write him at least once a week and come to visit him at this TB place in my Christmas vacation?

I had never heard Buddy so upset. He was very proud of his perfect health and was always telling me it was psychosomatic when my sinuses blocked up and I couldn’t breathe. I thought this an odd attitude for a doctor to have and perhaps he should study to be a psychiatrist instead, but of course I never came right out and said so.

I told Buddy how sorry I was about the TB and promised to write, but when I hung up I didn’t feel one bit sorry. I only felt a wonderful relief.

I thought the TB might just be a punishment for living the kind of double life Buddy lived and feeling so superior to people. And I thought how convenient it would be now I didn’t have to announce to everybody at college I had broken off with Buddy and start the boring business of blind dates all over again.

I simply told everyone that Buddy had TB and we were practically engaged, and when I stayed in to study on Saturday nights they were extremely kind to me because they thought I was so brave, working the way I did just to hide a broken heart.


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This work (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath) is free of known copyright restrictions.