The Bell Jar
Mr Willard drove me up to the Adirondacks.
It was the day after Christmas and a grey sky bellied over us, fat with snow. I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass.
At Christmas I almost wished I was a Catholic.
First Mr Willard drove and then I drove. I don’t know what we talked about, but as the countryside, already deep under old falls of snow, turned us a bleaker shoulder, and as the fir trees crowded down from the grey hills to the road edge, so darkly green they looked black, I grew gloomier and gloomier.
I was tempted to tell Mr Willard to go ahead alone, I would hitch-hike home.
But one glance at Mr Willard’s face—the silver hair in its boyish crewcut, the clear blue eyes, the pink cheeks, all frosted like a sweet wedding cake with the innocent, trusting expression—and I knew I couldn’t do it. I’d have to see the visit through to the end.
At midday the greyness paled a bit, and we parked in an icy turn-off and shared out the tunafish sandwiches and the oatmeal cookies and the apples and the thermos of black coffee Mrs Willard had packed for our lunch.
Mr Willard eyed me kindly. Then he cleared his throat and brushed a few last crumbs from his lap. I could tell he was going to say something serious, because he was very shy, and I’d heard him clear his throat in that same way before giving an important economics lecture.
“Nelly and I have always wanted a daughter.”
For one crazy minute I thought Mr Willard was going to announce that Mrs Willard was pregnant and expecting a baby girl. Then he said, “But I don’t see how any daughter could be nicer than you.”
Mr Willard must have thought I was crying because I was so glad he wanted to be a father to me. “There, there,” he patted my shoulder and cleared his throat once or twice. “I think we understand each other.”
Then he opened the car door on his side and strolled round to my side, his breath shaping tortuous smoke signals in the grey air. I moved over to the seat he had left and he started the car and we drove on.
I’m not sure what I expected of Buddy’s sanatorium.
I think I expected a kind of wooden chalet perched up on top of a small mountain, with rosy-cheeked young men and women, all very attractive but with hectic glittering eyes, lying covered with thick blankets on outdoor balconies.
“TB is like living with a bomb in your lung,” Buddy had written to me at college. “You just lie around very quietly hoping it won’t go off.”
I found it hard to imagine Buddy lying quietly. His whole philosophy of life was to be up and doing every second. Even when we went to the beach in the summer he never lay down to drowse in the sun the way I did. He ran back and forth or played ball or did a little series of rapid push-ups to use the time.
Mr Willard and I waited in the reception room for the end of the afternoon rest cure.
The colour scheme of the whole sanatorium seemed to be based on liver. Dark, glowering woodwork, burnt-brown leather chairs, walls that might once have been white but had succumbed under a spreading malady of mould or damp. A mottled brown linoleum sealed off the floor.
On a low coffee-table, with circular and semi-circular stains bitten into the dark veneer, lay a few wilted numbers of Time and Life. I flipped to the middle of the nearest magazine. The face of Eisenhower beamed up at me, bald and blank as the face of a foetus in a bottle.
After a while I became aware of a sly, leaking noise. For a minute I thought the walls had begun to discharge the moisture that must saturate them, but then I saw the noise came from a small fountain in one corner of the room.
The fountain spurted a few inches into the air from a rough length of pipe, threw up its hands, collapsed and drowned its ragged dribble in a stone basin of yellowing water. The basin was paved with the white hexagonal tiles one finds in public lavatories.
A buzzer sounded. Doors opened and shut in the distance. Then Buddy came in.
Buddy hugged his father, and promptly, with a dreadful brightness, came over to me and held out his hand. I shook it. It felt moist and fat.
Mr Willard and I sat together on a leather couch. Buddy perched opposite us on the edge of a slippery armchair. He kept smiling, as if the corners of his mouth were strung up on invisible wire.
The last thing I expected was for Buddy to be fat. All the time I thought of him at the sanatorium I saw shadows carving themselves under his cheekbones and his eyes burning out of almost fleshless sockets.
But everything concave about Buddy had suddenly turned convex. A pot belly swelled under the tight white nylon shirt and his cheeks were round and ruddy as marzipan fruit. Even his laugh sounded plump.
Buddy’s eyes met mine. “It’s the eating,” he said. “They stuff us day after day and then just make us lie around. But I’m allowed out on walk-hours now, so don’t worry, I’ll thin down in a couple of weeks.” He jumped up, smiling like a glad host. “Would you like to see my room?”
I followed Buddy, and Mr Willard followed me, through a pair of swinging doors set with panes of frosted glass down a dim, liver-coloured corridor smelling of floor wax and lysol and another vaguer odour, like bruised gardenias.
Buddy threw open a brown door, and we filed into the narrow room.
A lumpy bed, shrouded by a thin white spread, pencil-striped with blue, took up most of the space. Next to it stood a bed table with a pitcher and a water glass and the silver twig of a thermometer poking up from a jar of pink disinfectant. A second table, covered with books and papers and off-kilter clay pots—baked and painted, but not glazed—squeezed itself between the bed foot and the closet door.
“Well,” Mr Willard breathed, “it looks comfortable enough.”
“What are these?” I picked up a clay ashtray in the shape of a lilypad, with the veinings carefully drawn in yellow on a murky green ground. Buddy didn’t smoke.
“That’s an ashtray,” Buddy said. “It’s for you.”
I put the tray down. “I don’t smoke.”
“I know,” Buddy said. “I thought you might like it, though.”
“Well,” Mr Willard rubbed one papery lip against another. “I guess I’ll be getting on. I guess I’ll be leaving you two young people…”
“Fine, Dad. You be getting on.”
I was surprised. I had thought Mr Willard was going to stay the night before driving me back the next day.
“Shall I come too?”
“No, no.” Mr Willard peeled a few bills from his wallet and handed them to Buddy. “See that Esther gets a comfortable seat on the train. She’ll stay a day or so, maybe.”
Buddy escorted his father to the door.
I felt Mr Willard had deserted me. I thought he must have planned it all along, but Buddy said No, his father simply couldn’t stand the sight of sickness and especially his own son’s sickness, because he thought all sickness was sickness of the will. Mr Willard had never been sick a day in his life.
I sat down on Buddy’s bed. There simply wasn’t anywhere else to sit.
Buddy rummaged among his papers in a businesslike way. Then he handed me a thin, grey magazine. “Turn to page eleven.”
The magazine was printed somewhere in Maine and full of stencilled poems and descriptive paragraphs separated from each other by asterisks. On page eleven I found a poem titled “Florida Dawn.” I skipped down through image after image about water-melon lights and turtle-green palms and shells fluted like bits of Greek architecture.
“Not bad.” I thought it was dreadful.
“Who wrote it?” Buddy asked with an odd, pigeony smile.
My eye dropped to the name on the lower right-hand corner of the page. B. S. Willard.
“I don’t know.” Then I said, “Of course I know, Buddy. You wrote it.”
Buddy edged over to me.
I edged back. I had very little knowledge about TB, but it seemed to me an extremely sinister disease, the way it went on so invisibly. I thought Buddy might well be sitting in his own little murderous aura of TB germs.
“Don’t worry,” Buddy laughed. “I’m not positive.”
“You won’t catch anything.”
Buddy stopped for a breath, the way you do in the middle of climbing something very steep.
“I want to ask you a question.” He had a disquieting new habit of boring into my eyes with his look as if actually bent on piercing my head, the better to analyse what went on inside it.
“I’d thought of asking it by letter.”
I had a fleeting vision of a pale blue envelope with a Yale crest on the back flap.
“But then I decided it would be better if I waited until you came up, so I could ask you in person.” He paused. “Well, don’t you want to know what it is?”
“What?” I said in a small, unpromising voice.
Buddy sat down beside me. He put his arm around my waist and brushed the hair from my ear. I didn’t move. Then I heard him whisper, “How would you like to be Mrs Buddy Willard?”
I had an awful impulse to laugh.
I thought how that question would have bowled me over at any time in my five-or six-year period of adoring Buddy Willard from a distance.
Buddy saw me hesitate.
“Oh, I’m in no shape now, I know,” he said quickly. “I’m still on P.A.S. and I may yet lose a rib or two, but I’ll be back at med school by next fall. A year from this spring at the latest…”
“I think I should tell you something, Buddy.”
“I know,” Buddy said stiffly. “You’ve met someone.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“What is it, then?”
“I’m never going to get married.”
“You’re crazy.” Buddy brightened. “You’ll change your mind.”
“No. My mind’s made up.”
But Buddy just went on looking cheerful.
“Remember,” I said, “that time you hitch-hiked back to college with me after Skit Night?”
“Remember how you asked me where would I like to live best, the country or the city?”
“And you said…”
“And I said I wanted to live in the country and in the city both?”
“And you,” I continued with sudden force, “laughed and said I had the perfect set-up of a true neurotic and that that question came from some questionnaire you’d had in psychology class that week?”
Buddy’s smile dimmed.
“Well, you were right. I am neurotic. I could never settle down in either the country or the city.”
“You could live between them,” Buddy suggested helpfully. “Then you could go to the city sometimes and to the country sometimes.”
“Well, what’s so neurotic about that?”
Buddy didn’t answer.
“Well?” I rapped out, thinking, “You can’t coddle these sick people, it’s the worst thing for them, it’ll spoil them to bits.”
“Nothing,” Buddy said in a pale, still voice.
“Neurotic, ha!” I let out a scornful laugh. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
Buddy put his hand on mine.
“Let me fly with you.”
I stood at the top of the ski slope on Mount Pisgah, looking down. I had no business to be up there. I had never skied before in my life. Still, I thought I would enjoy the view while I had the chance.
At my left, the rope tow deposited skier after skier on the snowy summit which, packed by much crossing and re-crossing and slightly melted in the noon sun, had hardened to the consistency and polish of glass. The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness.
On every side of me the red and blue and white jacketed skiers tore away down the blinding slope like fugitive bits of an American flag. From the foot of the ski run, the imitation log cabin lodge piped its popular songs into the overhang of silence.
Gazing down on the Jungfrau
From our chalet for two…
The lilt and boom threaded by me like an invisible rivulet in a desert of snow. One careless, superb gesture, and I would be hurled into motion down the slope towards the small khaki spot in the sidelines, among the spectators, which was Buddy Willard.
All morning Buddy had been teaching me how to ski.
First, Buddy borrowed skis and ski poles from a friend of his in the village, and ski boots from a doctor’s wife whose feet were only one size larger than my own, and a red ski jacket from a student nurse. His persistence in the face of mulishness was astounding.
Then I remembered that at medical school Buddy had won a prize for persuading the most relatives of dead people to have their dead ones cut up whether they needed it or not, in the interests of science. I forget what the prize was, but I could just see Buddy in his white coat with his stethoscope sticking out of a side pocket like part of his anatomy, smiling and bowing and talking those numb, dumb relatives into signing the post-mortem papers.
Next, Buddy borrowed a car from his own doctor, who’d had TB himself and was very understanding, and we drove off as the buzzer for walk-hour rasped along the sunless sanatorium corridors.
Buddy had never skied before either, but he said that the elementary principles were quite simple, and as he’d often watched the ski instructors and their pupils he could teach me all I’d need to know.
For the first half-hour I obediently herring-boned up a small slope, pushed off with my poles and coasted straight down. Buddy seemed pleased with my progress.
“That’s fine, Esther,” he observed, as I negotiated my slope for the twentieth time. “Now let’s try you on the rope tow.”
I stepped in my tracks, flushed and panting.
“But Buddy, I don’t know how to zigzag yet. All those people coming down from the top know how to zigzag.”
“Oh, you need only go half-way. Then you won’t gain very much momentum.”
And Buddy accompanied me to the rope tow and showed me how to let the rope run through my hands, and then told me to close my fingers round it and go up.
It never occurred to me to say no.
I wrapped my fingers around the rough, bruising snake of a rope that slithered through them, and went up.
But the rope dragged me, wobbling and balancing, so rapidly I couldn’t hope to dissociate myself from it half-way. There was a skier in front of me and a skier behind me, and I’d have been knocked over and stuck full of skis and poles the minute I let go, and I didn’t want to make trouble, so I hung quietly on.
At the top, though, I had second thoughts.
Buddy singled me out, hesitating there in the red jacket. His arms chopped the air like khaki windmills. Then I saw he was signalling me to come down a path that had opened in the middle of the weaving skiers. But as I poised, uneasy, with a dry throat, the smooth white path from my feet to his feet grew blurred.
A skier crossed it from the left, another crossed it from the right, and Buddy’s arms went on waving feebly as antennae from the other side of a field swarming with tiny moving animalcules like germs, or bent, bright exclamation marks.
I looked up from that churning amphitheatre to the view beyond it.
The great, grey eye of the sky looked back at me, its mist-shrouded sun focusing all the white and silent distances that poured from every point of the compass, hill after pale hill, to stall at my feet.
The interior voice nagging me not to be a fool—to save my skin and take off my skis and walk down, camouflaged by the scrub pines bordering the slope—fled like a disconsolate mosquito. The thought that I might kill myself formed in my mind coolly as a tree or a flower.
I measured the distance to Buddy with my eye.
His arms were folded, now, and he seemed of a piece with the split-rail fence behind him—numb, brown and inconsequential.
Edging to the rim of the hilltop, I dug the spikes of my poles into the snow and pushed myself into a flight I knew I couldn’t stop by skill or any belated access of will.
I aimed straight down.
A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the mouth and raked the hair back horizontal on my head. I was descending, but the white sun rose no higher. It hung over the suspended waves of the hills, an insentient pivot without which the world would not exist.
A small, answering point in my own body flew towards it. I felt my lungs inflate with the inrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”
I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.
People and trees receded on either hand like the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it, the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother’s belly.
My teeth crunched a gravelly mouthful. Ice water seeped down my throat.
Buddy’s face hung over me, near and huge, like a distracted planet. Other faces showed themselves up in back of his. Behind them, black dots swarmed on a plane of whiteness. Piece by piece, as at the strokes of a dull godmother’s wand, the old world sprang back into position.
“You were doing fine,” a familiar voice informed my ear, “until that man stepped into your path.”
People were unfastening my bindings and collecting my ski poles from where they poked skyward, askew, in their separate snowbanks. The lodge fence propped itself at my back.
Buddy bent to pull off my boots and the several pairs of white wool socks that padded them. His plump hand shut on my left foot, then inched up my ankle, closing and probing, as if feeling for a concealed weapon.
A dispassionate white sun shone at the summit of the sky. I wanted to hone myself on it till I grew saintly and thin and essential as the blade of a knife.
“I’m going up,” I said. “I’m going to do it again.”
“No, you’re not.”
A queer, satisfied expression came over Buddy’s face.
“No, you’re not,” he repeated with a final smile. “Your leg’s broken in two places. You’ll be stuck in a cast for months.”